August 04, 2006

Whine Stewards

In a column today in The Oklahoman, I tell Big Education’s union bosses that their whining is really starting to get old.
Education’s crisis isn’t money

By Brandon Dutcher

In January the state’s largest labor union, the Oklahoma Education Association, filed a lawsuit claiming that school funding in Oklahoma is inadequate. Last week a judge dismissed the lawsuit. Now it's time to address education’s real problems.

The union says education has reached “a crisis state.” That's true, but it's not a funding crisis.

Data derived from a March 2006 Census Bureau report tell us, for example, that the Plainview School District is managing to spend $25,667 per student. The Sweetwater School District spends $20,014 per student. The Reydon School District spends $17,686 per student.

Those numbers don't surprise me. Last year I teamed up with accountant Steve Anderson, formerly a public school teacher with 17 teaching certifications, to determine how much money Oklahomans are paying for their schools. We computed all the expenditures that would be included on a regular financial statement.

The per-pupil cost in Oklahoma in 2003 (the latest year for which data were available) was $11,250. That's around $200,000 per classroom.

OEA President Roy Bishop pronounced the study “highly suspect,” so we challenged the union to a public debate on the matter. Six months later, we're still waiting to hear from them.

School funding is more than adequate, and most Oklahomans know it. Two weeks after the labor union filed its lawsuit, Cole Hargrave Snodgrass & Associates asked 400 Oklahoma voters, “Which of the following comes closest to your beliefs?” While 41 percent said “the simple fact is that our schools need more money,” 52 percent said “our schools would have enough money if they spent it appropriately instead of wasting it.”

It's not the investment that's inadequate. It's the return on investment.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, “the nation's report card,” is a highly regarded benchmark. The American Federation of Teachers calls it the “gold standard.” NAEP tells us the percentage of Oklahoma fourth-graders “proficient” in various subjects. These are fourth-graders who demonstrate “solid academic performance” and are well-prepared for fifth grade.

Only 25 percent of Oklahoma's fourth-graders are proficient in reading. A mere 29 percent are proficient in math. Only 25 percent are proficient in science.

Oklahoma masks this failure by lowering the bar on other measures in order to inflate results. These “successes” are breathlessly trumpeted by bureaucrats and stenographed by reporters, but will be scrutinized in a forthcoming OCPA study.

I know fourth-graders in a local nonpublic school who meet in portable buildings. Their teachers are paid a fraction of what public school teachers make. Yet these children are finding missing variables and conjugating Latin verbs, for crying out loud. Forgive me if I find the union's whining about “adequacy” a bit tiresome.

It takes a special kind of chutzpah to inhale that much cash, perform that abysmally, and then sue for more money. Heck, even President Clinton understood “we cannot ask the American people to spend more on education until we do a better job with the money we've got now.”

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