Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Oklahomans say more spending won't help

"There's a tradition in education," former New York City school chancellor Frank Macchiarola once observed, "that if you spend a dollar and it doesn't work, you should spend two dollars; and not only that, you should give those two dollars to the same person who couldn't do the job with only one."

That tradition is alive and well in Oklahoma, and indeed is the animating spirit of the teacher unions' push for State Question 744, the so-called HOPE initiative, a proposed constitutional amendment that would require the state legislature to increase per-pupil spending to the regional average.

Granted, the education system needs money. You're going to need money — lots of it — when you pay above-market prices for everything from skillets to schoolteachers. News9 recently reported that one Oklahoma school district spent $10,600 for a large skillet. Oklahoma's state auditor reported that another district paid $540 for three mop heads valued at $13.50. And of course public-school teachers on average are paid more than the market-determined teacher salaries in the private sector (both nationwide and in central Oklahoma, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics).

What 744's boosters need to explain to weary and wary taxpayers is this: How, exactly, is more money going to help? Because Oklahoma voters, by a stunning two-to-one margin, don't think it will.

A scientific telephone survey of 1,000 likely voters registered in Oklahoma was conducted February 25 through March 8 by SoonerPoll, the same firm that conducts the "Oklahoma Poll" for the Tulsa World. The poll, which was commissioned by OCPA, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

"Now I'm going to read you a statement," the surveyor said. "Please tell me whether you agree or disagree: If more money is spent on public schools in my district, students will learn more."

Only 32 percent of respondents agree with that statement, while 64 percent disagree.

Even Oklahoma Democrats (39 percent to 57 percent) don't think more money will improve student learning. Oklahoma Republicans (24 percent to 70 percent) are more emphatic.

As it turns out, this pessimism is warranted. Cato Institute scholar Andrew J. Coulson recently investigated the relationship between spending and student achievement in our state. He used ACT scores as a measurement because the NAEP scores for high-school students aren’t broken down by state. "Oklahoma's participation rate in the ACT is high (between the mid 60s and low 70s), hasn't fluctuated wildly over time, and is not significantly correlated with its actual scores (I ran a regression to find out), so it's a reasonable measure," he explains. "I've only carried it back to 1990 because the ACT was redesigned in that year, making the scores discontinuous."

As you can see in this chart, since 1990 — which, incidentally, is the year HB 1017 was signed into law — spending has risen dramatically while performance has remained essentially flat. When reality is this sobering, I guess you can't blame folks for clinging to HOPE.

Now I suppose we could pass SQ 744 and, magically, things could be different this time. Perhaps, for once, pouring more money into a heavily unionized, government-owned-and-operated monopoly would prove to be a wise use of resources. Sort of like pouring more gasoline into a truck with a blown transmission.

Heck, for all I know Lucy van Pelt might actually hold the football long enough for Charlie Brown to kick it next time. The unions can always HOPE.

Fortunately, Oklahomans know better.


Anonymous said...

It seems to me that an important question for supporters of such spending initiatives is this: on what exactly will the additional dollars be spent? Will the money be allocated to increase teacher salaries in order to reduce losses among the ranks of the best teachers? If that is the argument, then we ought to ask whether teacher retention is actually a problem that needs solving. Or, might the dollars be spent to reduce class sizes by hiring more teachers and building more classrooms? That might seem like a better use of funds, but studies show that teachers continue to use the same large-classroom methods even when their class rosters shrink. There are many other possibilities, but those who advocate that we spend even more money ought to be making a solid case (supported by evidence) for precisely what we are supposed to invest our taxes dollars to enhance.

Ryan P. Brown, Ph.D.
University of Oklahoma

Brandon Dutcher said...

I'm getting some other good comments on this post but -- per the Comments Policy -- I can't publish them unless the commenter gives his or her name.