How Much is Enough?

By Christy Watson

School finance is complicated. Many outside the public education sector have only a general notion of how schools are funded. The mechanism is fuzzy even for many of those working in schools.

So when educators and public education advocates start talking about the need for more money, the question almost always comes back: How much is enough?

Let me start with just a few reasons that illustrate why I’m sure the current level isn’t enough.

  • Oklahoma started the school year about 1,000 teachers short — even after eliminating 600 positions compared to the year before.
  • To compensate, Oklahoma has issued more than 1,000 emergency teaching certificates, leaving tens of thousands of Oklahoma children in classrooms without a fully qualified teacher.
  • In 2005, the Legislature passed Oklahoma’s Achieving Classroom Excellence law aimed at improving student achievement. It addressed graduation requirements, academic standards, testing and remediation for struggling students. The state Education Department estimates full funding at almost $39 million; actual funding is about $8 million. That’s only 20 percent of what’s needed, yet the expectations on schools and students to meet the law’s requirements are unchanged.
  • A few years ago, Oklahoma’s legislators enacted the Reading Sufficiency Act to ensure Oklahoma third graders could read at grade level before moving on to fourth grade. State education officials estimate the full cost of successfully implementing the law at $12.6 million; actual funding is around half of that.
  • Oklahoma’s per-student funding is terrible relative to other states. We’re last in our region and among the worst in the country at investing in the education of our children. And it’s not because our children need less. Oklahoma’s percentage of students needing special education services is higher than any state in our region, and only five states have a higher percentage of children who qualify for free- or reduced-price lunches.

I also know on a very personal level why it’s not enough. In February, my son’s third-grade teacher sent out a text with a lengthy list of supplies she needed for her classroom: pencils, spiral notebooks, folders, paper, etc. Off I went to Target to fill the classroom closets because it’s what I can do.

At my daughter’s middle school, parents are talking about a fundraising strategy to pay for supplies and equipment for excellent teachers who want to incorporate more hands-on learning in their classrooms — items the school could buy if it had the money.

How much is enough?

Oklahoma would have to spend nearly $1.3 billion more a year just to reach the average per-student investment of other states in our region. That would raise the per-student spending from its current level of $8,851 to the regional average of $10,744. Even if we wanted to just bump up one spot on the regional list and displace Texas, it would cost more than $750 million annually.

These are big dollars to talk about in a year of a $1.3 billion shortfall. That doesn’t mean we should ignore this huge gap in education investment and talk about it another day. I’m not OK with the idea that students in surrounding states have $30,000 or more invested in their education throughout the course of their school years. I don’t think most parents or business leaders think that’s OK, either.

How much is enough?

Isn’t the answer clear?

  • When the best possible teacher is leading every classroom.
  • When teachers have the resources they need to create engaging learning experiences for every child.
  • When schools have the resources to support children who have special needs and those who have fallen (and even started) behind.
  • When teachers aren’t begging for basic classroom supplies.
  • When Oklahoma parents like me can stop wondering why state leaders have decided my children are worth less than those in other states.

I’d really like an answer to this question: Why aren’t my children — and yours — worth more?

Watson is OSSBA’s communications director and the mom of two public school students.