Late last week, Oklahoma’s teachers returned to school after a nine-day walkout — one that began after the teachers had already claimed a preemptive a 16 percent raise of $6,100 per teacher.
It was hard to argue against that raise. Oklahoma ranked 49th nationally in terms of median teacher pay, according to the National Education Association (at $45,276 in 2015–16). The inflation-adjusted pay of the state’s teachers fell by more than 7 percent between 2008–09 and 2015–16. This makes it easy to understand the goodwill and glowing press that Oklahoma’s teachers have garnered.
Except for the part where sympathetic reporters routinely misrepresented the state of Oklahoma’s school spending.
During the walkout, the standard press narrative relied heavily on a report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) to suggest that the culprit was a 28.2 percent reduction in state school spending over the past decade. This claim showed up time and again in influential mainstream outlets. The Washington Post explained that, “adjusted for inflation, Oklahoma schools have lost about 30 percent of their funding over the past decade.” The New York Times reported that “since 2008, Oklahoma has cut its per-pupil instructional funding by 28 percent — the largest cut in the nation.” And The Atlantic related that “the legislature had been cutting education spending for years, with the amount of per-student funding dropping nearly 30 percent (when adjusted for inflation) over the past decade.”
The problem is that the CBPP’s figure was consistently used in a misleading fashion. It refers to Oklahoma’s general “formula” funding — not the amount schools actually spend on students. In Oklahoma, state aid of all kinds makes up only a bit less than half of total K–12 education spending (the rest comes from localities and from Washington). When all spending is accounted for, the Oklahoma State Department of Education reports that per-pupil outlays were flat between 2008 and 2017 — or down about 11 percent after adjusting for inflation.
Indeed, while it went largely unremarked in the coverage, Oklahoma’s salary issues have as much to do with staffing decisions and ballooning pension obligations as they do with funding cuts. Between 1992 and 2014, Oklahoma had a 17 percent increase in student enrollment but added non-teaching staff at more than twice that rate. And benefits now consume about 24 percent of Oklahoma teachers’ compensation — much of which goes to retirees rather than current teachers.
To be sure, Oklahoma has not invested in its schools — and that’s true whether spending is flat, down 11 percent, or down 30 percent. And we think the state, its students, and its citizens would be better off if the state upped its investment. But facts are stubborn things. There’s a huge difference between an 11 percent decrease and a 30 percent decrease, and reporters have an obligation to make sure their readers are getting the whole picture.
It may be less exciting to pen a story that says “Staffing decisions, benefit obligations, and stagnant spending frustrate teachers” than one that excitedly claims “Fed up with school spending cuts, Oklahoma teachers walk out.” Yet in an era when the press is tired of being attacked for “fake news,” media outlets are well-served by taking care to use the right figures in the right way.
— Frederick M. Hess is the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Amy Cummings is a research assistant at AEI.