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Taxpayers Disserved by Inacurrate School Spending Data

Do you know how much it costs to educate a student in Oklahoma? It’s likely more than you think, and the state Department of Education is keeping you in the dark.

In Oklahoma the total annual cost per pupil is $8,630 on average, according to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics (2009-10). However, according to the state Department of Education, the average per-pupil cost was just $7,760 that year.

At a time when state and local budgets are severely strained, it is crucial that spending decisions reflect sound and informed judgment.[/pullquote

Why the discrepancy? Despite referring simply to “per-pupil expenditures,” the agency actually only publishes operating per-pupil expenditures, omitting big-ticket items like paying off debt for school buildings.

That’s one of the reasons Oklahoma earned an F-minus in a new report from the Cato Institute, which grades all 50 state education departments for their financial transparency. Oklahoma is the fifth worst in the nation.

A business that acquired a bank loan while understating its expenses would be in serious trouble, yet state education departments like Oklahoma’s routinely understate the costs of public schools. It’s no wonder a recent Harvard survey found the public’s average estimate of the annual cost per public school student nationwide was less than half what is actually spent.

The department’s website fails to provide any data regarding average salaries, employee benefits, or pensions. It is also a near-impenetrable labyrinth, with cryptic jargon around every turn. By contrast, New Mexico earned the report’s only A for providing complete, timely and accessible spending data. Oklahoma should look to New Mexico’s example.

The Harvard study also examined how misconceptions about education spending affect support for spending levels. The researchers randomly divided survey respondents into two groups. They asked the first group whether “government funding for public schools in your district should increase, decrease or stay about the same.” They asked the second group the same question but prefaced it by informing respondents how much was currently being spent annually per pupil in their district.

Fifty-three percent of the uninformed group wanted to increase spending on public schools; only 43 percent of the informed group did. Fifty-seven percent of the informed group wanted spending to stay the same or decrease.

The widespread underestimation of education spending has real-world consequences. On Election Day 2012 in Colorado, voters in 29 of 31 districts voted to increase K-12 education spending by over $1 billion. The results for nearly two-thirds of the ballot questions passed with less than 60 percent support. As the Harvard survey suggests, a fully informed public would likely have voted differently.

When government agencies provide incomplete or misleading data, they deprive taxpayers of the ability to make informed decisions. Voters should have accurate information about how much they’re spending before deciding whether to spend more. At a time when state and local budgets are severely strained, it is crucial that spending decisions reflect sound and informed judgment.

Jason Bedrick is a policy analyst with the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.