School consolidation won't fix the funding gap

Funding for Oklahoma schools has fallen dramatically in recent years, with Oklahoma spending $706 less per student in inflation-adjusted dollars than we did in FY 2008. Polls show that Oklahomans are worried about it.

In response to the growing concern, some have argued that we only need to reduce administrative costs. They point to Oklahoma’s unusually large number of school districts for a state our size and say that by consolidating some of these districts, we could put more resources into the classroom without spending more on the education system overall.

So how much could we save from consolidating? New numbers from the U.S. Census help to break it down:

The latest numbers show that Oklahoma has the 48th lowest per pupil expenditures out of all 50 states and the District of Columbia. For most categories of expenditure, the picture is the same. We spend the 48th smallest amount for instruction and school-level administration. We rank slightly higher (40th) for spending on support services, which includes counselors, nurses, librarians, teacher training, and curriculum development. The data shows that we do put a disproportionate amount into superintendents’ offices. The $257 per student spent on district-level administration is 20th highest in the nation.

However, even under a highly optimistic estimate, we would not find enough savings out of administration to significantly improve funding for instruction. Hawaii spends the least on district administration ($31 per student). If we somehow reduced our spending to match that and put all of the savings into the classroom, we could increase spending on instruction by $226 per student.

But the next highest state in the rankings (Mississippi) spends $4,754 per pupil on instruction. The addition of $226 would bring us to $4,664. We would still be 48th, and we would have restored less then one-third of the overall funding that has been lost since 2008.

It’s possible that we might find more savings if we go beyond consolidating district administration and close down individual schools. However, that kind of consolidation brings serious costs — larger class sizes, longer bus trips, and the destruction of community centers for small towns all over Oklahoma. It’s also very difficult politically, which is another way of saying Oklahomans do not want it to happen.

An upcoming blog post will look at the history of school consolidation in Oklahoma and what is happening today. Certainly there are savings to be found. However, as OK Policy has argued before, the problem cannot be solved by playing musical chairs with education funding. We can’t close the gap without bringing in new revenues.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gene Perry joined OK Policy in January 2011. He is a native Oklahoman and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. He graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a B.A. in history and an M.A. in journalism. Gene also serves on the board of the Oklahoma Sustainability Network, is a trustee of the Oklahoma Foundation for Excellence, is a member of Investigative Reporters and Editors, and has chaired the communications advisory committee for the State Priorities Partnership, a nationwide network of state fiscal policy think tanks. He lives in Tulsa with his wife Kara Joy McKee, who is a Tulsa City Councilor.

One thought on “School consolidation won't fix the funding gap

  1. Hawaii operates all schools centrally with the state dept. of education effectively being the only school district. I don’t see us doing that!

    It’s possible that many non-admin. costs are higher here than they need to be due to minimum cost of say a counselor spread in some cases across a very small # of students. However, squeezing out another $100 or two won’t change the fact that we are seriously under-investing in the one service we know is directly responsible for our state’s future success.

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