Saturday, November 16, 2019

Small: how long are Oklahomans to wait for promised improvements in academic results?


The waiting game
By Jonathan Small

As I’ve noted in recent weeks, Oklahoma school appropriations have surged by 20 percent over the last two legislative sessions, but outcomes continue to decline, as has become apparent with the release of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the ACT exam and state testing results. When I point this out, I’m often told to “give it time,” that one cannot expect school performance to change in just one or two years.

Fair enough. But the problem is this pattern extends for decades. Oklahomans have steadily increased school funding through the years, but the outcomes produced by the school system are often unchanged from prior decades—or even worse.

In 1990, a host of tax increases were passed for education as part of House Bill 1017. Since then, Oklahoma has legalized the lottery and casinos, and increased taxes again, all to boost school funding. And, contrary to the political spin from some activists, the amount spent on education in Oklahoma has increased significantly over that time.

In 1990, Oklahoma’s per-pupil expenditure was $7,934. By the 2018 state budget year that figure reached $9,094, an increase of nearly 15 percent. (Both figures are adjusted for inflation.)

The problem is that we’re often getting the same or worse results, just at a higher cost.

Oklahoma’s NAEP score on fourth grade reading in 1992 was 220 (prior-year outcomes were not immediately available on the NAEP site). In 2019, the score was 216.

Oklahoma’s average composite ACT score in 1989, before HB 1017’s tax increases passed, was 19.9. In 2019, Oklahoma’s average composite ACT score was 18.9.

Just how long are Oklahomans supposed to “wait” for those promised improvements in academic results? Surely a quarter-century is long enough to conclude that spending increases alone are not getting the job done.

But what is the alternative to waiting and hoping as yet another generation of Oklahoma children gets left behind? One proven solution is to increase school choice.

Low-income urban students often enter charter schools two grades behind, but finish performing at grade level or better and go on to obtain college degrees. The parents of children with special needs who now attend private schools thanks to state-funded scholarships will tell you of lives changes, dramatically, for the better.

To increase spending on a government system does not change outcomes. But harness spending increases to parental choice, and then you have a formula for improvement and upward mobility. No government system is going to care for a child more than that child’s family or guardian, and simply spending more money to get the same (or worse) results is not progress.

It’s time for this decades-long waiting game to end. State lawmakers should put Oklahoma on a path to true academic improvement by not only boosting education funding, but also giving parents the ability to choose their child’s school.

Jonathan Small serves as president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.

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