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School District Size; School District Spending

September 23, 2015

I’m used to reading ill-informed attacks on school funding. They come from newspapers. They come from think tanks. They come from academic-type folks. Today’s editorial in the Oklahoman from Ph.D. economist Byron Schlomach with the 1889 Institute hits the myth trifecta.

Among his claims:

  • The 300 smallest school districts in Oklahoma account for less than 13% of all public education expenditures.
  • The 12 largest school districts in the state account for 40% of all public education expenditures.
  • The 12 spend about $500 more per pupil than the 300.
  • Oklahoma districts overall spend more than $10,000 per pupil.
  • The state makes it hard to find information about school spending.

I’ll start with the last claim. It’s not that hard to get data on school districts and spending or really anything else. Just contact the Office of Educational Quality and Accountability and ask for their most recent database. This one happens to be for the 2013-14 school year. They’ll send you data going back to 1997 if you ask.

I’m against using geographic or other differences to pit school districts against each other. On the other hand, I’m superintendent of one of those 12 mega-districts that Schlomach thinks should be torn asunder. Using the 2013-14 database, I ran a few numbers on the whole state, the 12 largest districts, and the 300 smallest ones.

Variable 12 Largest 300 Smallest All Districts
Enrollment 249,916 83,087 668,054
Economically Disadvantaged Students 157,461 56,260 413,578
Special Education Students 34,463 15,626 101, 090
ELL Students 31,536 1,885 42,271

The 12 largest districts in the state actually educate 37% of the state’s students. The 300 smallest districts educate about 12% of the state’s students. The numbers of economically disadvantaged and special education students follow within a couple of percentage points. The ELL population heavily leans towards the biggest districts; these 12 have 67% of all the state’s ELL students. Hold that thought.

Variable 12 Largest 300 Smallest All Districts
Total Spending 1.95 billion 777 million 5.26 billion
Local Funding 47% 43% 10%
State Funding 35% 52% 14%
Federal Funding 40% 48% 12%

The 12 largest districts spend a lot of money. According to these figures, during the 2013-14 school year, they accounted for 37% of all school spending in Oklahoma. Meanwhile, the 300 smallest districts accounted for about 15% of all spending. This sounds about right. It’s pretty close to the enrollment percentages too.

The Oklahoma City and Tulsa districts have a number of factors that complicate their districts, but overall, this group has the ability to provide broader, unduplicated services in their larger settings. Small districts can’t be as efficient. It’s a fact. It’s just not a clarion call for consolidation. Remember, I’ve worked in rural schools too. I see their value.

The other issue with his research is the $10,000 amount. He’s including bond debt – twice. That’s what happens when you count debt repayment and the sinking fund separately. They’re the same thing. He’s also counting activity funds. Yes, that volleyball cookie dough fundraiser is counted as revenue and expenditures in his methodology. Technically, it is money in and money out, but it is not tied to the direct instruction or operation of the school district.

The problem with bond debt is that it’s very localized and quite varied. More than 130 districts have no debt repayment listed. That means either their patrons haven’t passed a bond recently or that they just don’t have the assessed property valuation to make a bond issue worth it.

Whether you’re one of the 12…

Or one of the 300…

300 movie

…one thing is certain. State aid is still lower than it was in 2009 – to the tune of about $149 per pupil. The districts that have the bond indebtedness have moved more instructional and operational costs into here than ever before. This stymies capital improvement, such as modernizing heat and air systems for aging schools.

This is nothing but a distraction from the fact that schools still teach more students under more mandates and with fewer teachers and less funding than they did 6 years ago.

I’m no economist. I’m just an administrator who wrote his dissertation over Oklahoma school district expenditures, with a focus on economies of scale and diseconomies of scale. If you were one of the 12 people who read it, you would’ve been dazzled with passages such as this:

Ok, none of it was really exciting. It’s a dissertation.

I also did a little research on the group Dr. Schlomach represents, the 1889 Institute. According to their website:

The 1889 Institute is an independent non-profit 501c3 education and research organization that analyzes and develops state public policies for Oklahoma based on principles of limited and responsible government, free enterprise, and a robust civil society. We disseminate analysis and recommendations to both public policy makers and the general public. Our focus is on education, healthcare, welfare, economic liberty, and state finance.

The 1889 Institute does not engage in policy advocacy but does provide policy expertise to public policy makers and advocacy groups. The Institute does not have members or engage in grassroots organizational activities.

Funny, his editorial sounds like policy advocacy to me. Maybe I’m just reading this part wrong:

Diseconomies happen when enterprises get so large that it is impossible to manage them well. The state’s 12 biggest districts seem to have entered diseconomies territory. Instead of a big effort to consolidate our smaller school districts, let’s work to split up some of our largest.

Sure, there’s no real plan there. Sure, the facts are quite specious. Still, he’s taking a position.

Since they’re a non-profit, I decided to look up their funding sources on GuideStar. What I found is that this organization formed in 2014. Since they’re that new, there’s no 990 tax form on their website as of yet. I can make some guesses, based on the people who were excitedly retweeting the article today. That would be speculation, however. I’ll stick to facts I actually know.*


*On the other hand, since the 1889 Institute shares the same physical address as a prominent right-wing Oklahoma non-profit think tank, maybe I wouldn’t be speculating all that much.

mic drop

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  1. Kathy
    September 24, 2015 at 6:25 am

    Love the mike drop. Also, glad that someone who has studied this enough to write a boring dissertation on it answered that editorial — and right away. Now, we need to get your piece on the desks of all the policymakers that read that editorial.

    Liked by 1 person

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