The Education of Little Thinker

In my last post Same Song, Umpteenth Verse  I took Dave Bond and Curtis Shelton of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs to task for their ill-informed and misleading September 19 post “Oklahoma Public School Revenues Are Higher Than Ever”.  Here is the graph they used

I tied in to their numbers and showed how they were double counting and using non-recurring funds to fabricate a tale of growing education revenue in our state.  There was more I could have said, as I have in many past posts ( Double, Double, Toil and Trouble  and Paradox of Thrift are two of several) , about their failure to comprehend even the most basic school district finance principles, but I stopped at those two and declared Mr. Shelton a Limited Thinker for the first time (Mr. Bond is a repeat offender,  see Done Waiting for Mr. Bond ).  So when I first read Mr. Shelton’s latest post “AP Reports States’ Funds ‘Slashed’, ‘Depleted’”, and saw this graph

I sadly thought here is a young “research fellow” going down the same path as the other Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs limited thinkers being unable to think clearly or do real research.  But then I noticed the graph has changed.  The total numbers for each year are now less and they appear clearly to be lower by the amount of the “double-counting” of “Non-Revenue Receipts” that are included in the first graph, which was the most obvious half of my prior critique.  So there is hope for this new thinker and I want to continue his education.

Here’s what he says in the earlier post after trying to convince us that Oklahoma schools are awash in funding:

“Tragically, too much of this increased funding hasn’t made it to the classroom where it could most directly benefit students.”  Then he pleas for giving school districts flexibility to re-allocate funding by saying, “For instance, lawmakers should send to a vote of the people a resolution allowing a larger percentage of local ad valorem dollars to be utilized for teacher salaries and other classroom expenses, rather than for buildings and technology upgrades only.” 

In the more recent post he echoes the same thought, “Murphy (the Associated Press writer) never explains why, with over $2 billion increased funding in a decade and with “new buildings and huge football stadiums,” school districts fail to prioritize teachers.”  Again his thinking (or the editorial direction he was given) has led him to the conclusion there is plenty of money, some of it just needs to be re-directed from its current uses to higher priority expenditures like teacher salaries.

Here’s my new chart to help him think about that with facts at hand.

I show FY2009 and FY2016 to keep it simple and for the reasons I stated in my last post, i.e. the state was still making a reasonable effort through 2009; our policy-caused woes have occurred since then.  I do not include “Cash Forward” or fund balances for reasons I’ve repeatedly written about ( see Where to Begin? and Paradox of Thrift ) , primarily you don’t rely on one-time money to cover recurring expenses and these funds are almost entirely already committed and even encumbered.  The Total New Revenues shown are the same as in my earlier chart, taken directly from the same Oklahoma State Department of Education data Mr. Shelton shows, however they are broken down by “fund” instead of “source”.   This makes it easier to explain what the revenue is used for.  Let’s work from the bottom up.

All Other is mostly the OKC area MAPS funding and statewide private gifts to school districts.  (The 2009 amount includes $1.333 million to make the overall total equal the state’s numbers due to an error on their end that I can’t explain.)  Local boards already have control over these funds subject to the giver’s requirements.

Student Activities is controlled by Title 70 Okla. Statutes Sect. 5-129 and is essentially where athletics admissions, school fundraisers, and other student activity related funding is deposited and must be expended for school activity purposes.  This is not a source for teacher raises.

Sinking/Bond Project funds are controlled by Article 10, Section 26 of the Oklahoma Constitution as more fully spelled out in Title 70 Okla. Statutes Sect. 1-119 and 15-101 through 15-106.1.  These funds cannot be used for teacher salaries.  We will come back to this shortly.

Child Nutrition funds are primarily federal money for school breakfasts and lunches, money paid by parents and students for student meals, and a little bit of state matching funds to secure the federal money.  These expenditures are controlled by Title 70, Sect. 3-119 and federal law.  None of this money can be used for teacher salaries.

Building funds are derived from a 5 mill levy established by our state’s Constitution at Article 10, Sect. 10, specifically for the purpose of erecting and maintaining school buildings.  These funds also cannot be used for teacher salaries, BUT can be used to maintain and operate school buildings including utilities and custodial costs.  In effect, based on local discretion, these funds are essentially operational and can free up other unrestricted operational funds to be used for teacher salaries.

Lastly, I have combined the General and Co-op funds together since the latter is essentially operational funds combined by two or more school districts to carry out a joint educational program.  These funds can be, and are mostly, used to compensate instructional and other staff needed to operate our school programs.

Note the last three lines of my table; these show per student revenue for 2009 and 2016, first for all New Revenue which includes much that cannot be legally used for teacher pay, then for the General/Co-op funds only, and lastly adding in the Building funds which I pointed out are operational, even though not available for teacher pay.  Despite the silly math of the OCPA the reality is clear—Oklahoma school districts have less funding per student ($260 per student less in their general funds and $214 per student less including their building funds) available now to fund classroom instruction than eight years ago and we haven’t even considered that insurance, utility and fuel costs have all steadily risen and take a larger share of those operational dollars now than in 2009.

So what is our little thinker thinking when he decries the money spent on buildings, technology and football stadiums?  Those are all choices made by local communities, paid for with local property taxes out of district Sinking funds, to retire bonded indebtedness used pursuant to our state Constitution.  Apparently, if he understands state law which is a big IF, he is advocating allowing local communities to sell bonds, i.e. incur debt, to give teacher pay raises.  That’s a pretty shocking recommendation coming from a “conservative” think tank.  You see all the operational millage that school districts receive is provided for in Article 10, Sections 9 and 10, of our state constitution, namely 35 mills for the general fund of each school district based on its own valuation, another 4 mills raised county-wide and distributed by student population (was originally the funding for Oklahoma’s separate schools under segregation), and the 5 mills for the building fund.  All of this is already available, the building fund by substitution, for teacher pay as I’ve discussed above.  The only other millage allowed is for retiring bond debt.  The legislature can do no more without an amendment to our Constitution to increase property taxes.

So I don’t get it and I don’t think little thinker Shelton does either.  But there is hope that he will actually read, think and do research in the future before simply regurgitating the misinformation he is being paid to promulgate.  What is even more amazing is that he and others at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs are given space in the Tulsa World, a reputable news organization that recently committed to a relationship with Politifact to enhance its fact-checking capacity in our state.  If the World is interested in facts it will give no space to OCPA Limited Thinkers until they learn how to read, think and research.

As always lunch is on me to the first to ID the location of the above photo showing me as king of thinkers—and good luck with that.



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