Economics Professor Points Out Oklahoma's Failure to Adequately Fund Its Schools

Post date: Aug 2, 2010 11:20:51 PM

July 30, 2010

Oklahoma’s education commitment deserves failing grade

MICKEY HEPNER

The Edmond Sun

EDMOND — Is Oklahoma’s government too big? Judging by the statements of some local political candidates, one might think the answer is “yes.” The truth is that Oklahoma’s state and local governments are already among the nation’s smallest.

Consider the taxes we pay. According to data provided by the U.S. Census Bureau and U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, in 2007-08 (the latest year for which data in all 50 states is available) Oklahoma’s state and local tax burden amounted to 9.7 percent.

In other words, for every $100 of income received by Oklahomans, we paid $9.70 in taxes to our state and local governments. The national average was significantly higher — 10.8 percent. In fact, Oklahoma’s tax burden ranked as the 42nd highest in the nation (43rd if you include the District of Columbia). While state conservatives often rail against Oklahoma’s taxes with a zeal that rivals local sports fans’ passion for the Sooners and Cowboys, the fact is that Oklahomans pay much less in taxes than residents of other states.

With less tax revenue, this means that Oklahoma’s state and local governments spend less too, even on the most important governmental function of all — educating our children. According to data provided by the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2007-08 Oklahoma’s state and local governments spent nearly $5 billion supporting our state’s public schools — or $7,683 per pupil. The national average for that year, though, was $10,297 per pupil.

Admittedly, some (but not all) of this difference is caused by Oklahoma being a poorer state than most. With fewer resources, our state is less able to provide as much support for education as other, wealthier states. After all, it is not a surprise that Connecticut spends $4,000 per pupil above the national average, considering it is also one of the wealthiest states.

Instead of focusing on spending per pupil, a more meaningful statistic that reflects a state’s commitment to education is state education funding as a percentage of state personal income. For example, while Oklahoma spent nearly $5 billion for its public schools in 2007-08, Oklahoma’s personal income in 2008 topped $130 billion. Thus, for every $100 of personal income Oklahomans received in 2008, $3.76 went to fund our public schools.

How does this number compare to other states? Unfortunately, it does not compare very well. While Oklahoma education funding equaled 3.76 percent of state personal income, the national average in 2008 was 4.15 percent. Even among the surrounding states, the average was 4.13 percent.

Translation: Oklahoma spends less on education than other states not just because we are poorer, but because we are less committed to funding education than other states. In fact, total education funding in Oklahoma would need to rise by $500 million just to reach the same level of commitment as found in the surrounding states.

Some conservatives claim that even Oklahoma’s relatively low level of education spending is too excessive. They claim that government spending, even on education, is too inefficient. I admit that as a taxpayer I want our state’s education system, along with all government programs, to operate as efficiently as possible. Yet as a father of two young children, I expect our state to make the same commitment to education as other states already make. And on this point, our state deserves a failing grade.

MICKEY HEPNER is an associate professor of economics at the University of Central Oklahoma. Hepner serves on the Executive Committee of the Board of Directors for The Oklahoma Academy.