Why education reform is not like musical chairs

High on this year’s agenda for Governor Fallin and education reform groups is to put more money into Oklahoma classrooms by reducing administrative costs. Two bills filed for the upcoming session seek to accomplish this by mandate — HB 1493 by Rep. Brumbaugh and HB 1746 by Rep. Nelson would respectively require 70 percent and 65 percent of education funds to go towards direct instruction by 2014.

Critics often point to the large number of Oklahoma school districts. Oklahoma has nearly half as many school districts as Texas with only about 15 percent of the population. District consolidation is a perennial controversy in Oklahoma, especially for rural areas that depend on their local school as a community center.  While the drawbacks are clear, consolidation could still be worthwhile if it freed up resources for the classroom.

But would it?  While sending more money to classrooms is a laudable goal, it’s unlikely that this can be accomplished solely by taking from administrative costs. To understand why, we can compare how education spending is divided up in Oklahoma, the region, and nationally:

Education expenditures in Oklahoma, surrounding states, and the nation
Data Source: US Dept of Education Common Core of Data, 2008 Survey of Local Government Finances -- School Systems (http://nces.ed.gov/ccd/f33agency.asp)

A few points to understand: “general admin” is for superintendents’ offices, while “school-level admin” is principals and their staff. “Non-admin support services” means nurses, libraries, transportation, counselors, janitorial and maintenance services, and other functions not directly part of the classroom. “Other” includes food services and enterprise operations that recoup their costs through sales/fees, such as a bookstore.

While Oklahoma does trail by a few percentage points in funds going to instruction, the overall breakdown is similar to the region and nation. We pay about 1 percentage point more for general administration, which could mean there are modest savings to be found in consolidating districts. However, those savings may be limited by the need for school-level administration to pick up the slack, as our increased general admin costs are made up for by reduced school-level costs compared to surrounding states.

It is similarly unlikely that large savings can be found in support services without harming our schools. While education is complex, the expenses of running a school district are fairly straightforward. We will always need to pay a certain amount for buildings, maintenance, utilities, janitors, bus drivers, nurses, and cafeteria workers. Putting a greater percentage of school funding into instruction can’t be done simply by slashing those areas needed to provide a safe, comfortable environment in which children can learn.

It is possible to increase the share going to instruction by increasing the size of the pie; for example, New York has the highest percentage of money for instruction (71 percent) and also the second highest per pupil expenditure. Yet it is also possible for large investments to be spent inefficiently, as seems to be the case in New Jersey where the highest per pupil spending in the nation translates to only 59 percent for instruction.

However, in a state like Oklahoma, where schools already operate on relatively lean budgets, it’s unlikely that funds can be shuffled around without harming crucial functions.

These percentages may not exactly translate to how instruction would be defined in Oklahoma.  Both House bills leave that to the State Board of Education.  In Kansas, the legislature has set a goal of at least 65 percent spent on instruction, but there is continuing debate over what that means.  As one Kansas official put it, “You can tell a librarian she’s not a teacher, but don’t get too close.”

Obviously the money spent on schools is not the only factor in educational achievement. It may be possible to find inexpensive improvements in areas like teacher training and curriculum, as well as cost savings in all aspects of our school system. But we can’t expect to achieve our goals simply by playing musical chairs with education money.  Requiring districts to spend vastly more for instruction without providing extra funds to make it happen reflects the same misguided faith in solving complex problems with simple formulas that voters already rejected in SQ 744.

Update:  For a final update on these bills, see Where Are They Now? Bills we kept our eye on


Gene Perry worked for OK Policy from 2011 to 2019. 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.

11 thoughts on “Why education reform is not like musical chairs

  1. I can not vouch for all of its conclusions but the following estimates that Oklahoma could increase student performance by 16% if the least efficient districts were as efficient as the state’s most efficient districts.


    I’d say the best bang for the buck would be for teachers to teach, principals to take care of discipline and leading their school, and administrators taking care of administration. Everyone should “play their own positions,” focus on the “blocking and tackling” of their jobs, and abandon the social engineering of today’s data-DRIVEN “reformers.” Unfortunately, I anticipate the new administration will push for top down social enginnering of schools that producies counter-productive micromanaging.

  2. The pink elephant in the room during discussions of educational attainment and failure is the issue of poverty. It’s a well established fact: Poor children do not perform as well in school as do children from more economically stable homes.

    The obvious solution is to ameliorate poverty, or at least the effects of poverty, on Oklahoma’s children. Federal, state and local governments must commit to educational excellence. Provide equal funding and resources so that schools in poor neighborhoods are equal to the ones in the suburbs. Invest in quality early childhood education that teaches kids how to learn and how to think, instead of rote learning and drill that turns them off from learning. Create intensive, high-quality instruction to help struggling adolescents catch up to grade level and avoid failure and dropping out. Train teachers to teach the children in their classrooms, not just a one-size-fits-all approach to education. Personalize the high school experience to make it less rigid and more responsive to students and their families. Prepare all students for college and provide access to higher education for all Americans. Insist upon accountability by parents, administrators, teachers and students. Enlist the cooperation of media, entertainment and other industries to promote education and knowledge instead of pushing the insidious notion that being smart is un-cool and even un-American.

    A tall order, I know. Oklahoma might start by spending as much time and money and energy on reading and math as it spends on sports.

  3. The American Progress Report referred to in a comment above indicates that efforts should be made to collect data and develop innovative programs to enhance productivity. The Tulsa Public School District in particular shows poor results (albeit with relatively low per-pupil spending). In what spending bucket would money for developing innovative programs, running reports and collecting data be placed?

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