What if a hospital’s administrators regularly told surgeons to make do without bandages, with dull scalpels, and little to no anesthetic while claiming tight finances? With all the money hospitals have, there would be questions about the administrators’ competence and possibly audits to look for malfeasance. Something like this needs to happen at Oklahoma City Public Schools.

My wife is a teacher working in the Oklahoma City Public Schools (OKCPS) system. Last year, she came home telling me how there was no paper available for the notoriously few and regularly broken, undersupplied duplicating machines at her school. What’s more, there was no plan for the district to provide any. In the past, she was told, a parent had donated paper to that particular campus, but that parent had transferred his child to a private school. The school had surplus paper from previous years, but that was gone. There were no plans for the district to provide more.

Now, I am well aware that education funding has suffered an actual setback in this state (as opposed to a mere slow-down in the more normal regular increases in funding decade over decade). I would expect school districts to curb their purchases of some types of equipment, allow class sizes to climb a bit, and even let a few needed repairs slide. But paper? How are teachers to give exams? How are they to supplement textbooks? How are they to give out written homework assignments? You can’t just run out of paper one day and <poof> declare yourself paperless.

My wife solved the paperless problem by posting a request for donations to pay for paper on DonorsChoose.org. That is, she went begging – for charity – for paper – for something fundamental to getting her job done – to educate kids – in a taxpayer-funded school – which is supposed to be about educating kids.

Now, you might think I’m getting ready to complain about a lamentable lack of funding – you know, “underfunding” – of our neglected public schools, especially the urban ones. But I’m not. Actually, I’m outraged that OKCPS forces its teachers to beg for basic necessities that I know for a fact it can afford without a problem. After all, our big urban districts are among the bigger spending districts in the state.

We at the 1889 Institute decided to investigate whether there were other teachers begging for basics. DonorsChoose.org is a website where teachers post requests for donations to fund material classroom wants and needs. Anyone can donate and target specific districts or classrooms as one wishes. On August 22nd this year, we looked at all the solicitations for funds by OKCPS teachers posted that day. We found $34,000 in solicitations for what we judged as necessities. These are published, with teacher names redacted, in our report, Why Are OKCPS Teachers Begging the Public for Basics?

To be sure, though we did not count them or add them up, a much larger proportion of solicitations were for what we deemed unessential items (though our standard for essential was pretty strict, giving the benefit of the doubt to OKCPS). These non-essentials included lots of requests for “flexible seating” and carpet for “cozy corners” in elementary classrooms. Most requests for computers were deemed non-essential, as were a number of requests for class sets of specific novels. We just don’t have the information to know if these were essentials.

But, clearly essential is basic furniture for elementary students to have a place to put their coats. Frogs to dissect seem pretty essential, too. So do class sets of dictionaries. One request was for a bulb for a district-provided PowerPoint projector. Basics for using whiteboards, we judged, were essential, as were printers, ink, and toner when the teacher specifically mentioned copiers and printers constantly being broken or out of supplies. School districts all over the nation get extra funding for AP courses, but at one campus teachers had to go begging for AP test prep materials. There was one costly request for – get this – chairs. The elementary school had chairs in the library, but they were too big for the appropriately-sized tables in the room! And, we did deem some $6,500 in requests for computers to be necessities. They were for a handful per classroom to prepare kids for required tests that they would have to take on computers.

So, how do I know OKCPS can afford these essentials? Well, as noted in our paper, when all funds are accounted for, OKCPS spends 12 percent more per student than the statewide average. If you count only those funds that are categorized as spent on “Instruction” and “Support Services” OKCPS spends over 8 percent more than the statewide average. More than triple that difference, and you get how much more OKCPS spends than the Piedmont district, whose teachers posted no Donors Choose requests for essentials. And, as with every other time I’ve calculated how much funding each classroom represents, it’s difficult to figure out where all the money can possibly be going.

So, why are OKCPS teachers forced to go begging? The answer is that I haven’t the slightest idea. What I do know is that it’s not for lack of funding for OKCPS. There is plenty of money for the necessities of education, including speakers for smart boards already paid for and installed by the district. The problem, clearly, and the only explanation with lack of funding not it, is lack of proper prioritization. For all the lip service given to the need to support teachers in their classrooms, actions speak louder than words. No doubt, central district offices have paper and machines that work. Clearly, it’s more important to have a big fat bureaucracy (which likely simply cannot be managed well) and excuses to scream for more money from the legislature than it is to make sure education practitioners (teachers) have the basics they need to get the job done.

Byron Schlomach is Director of the 1889 Institute and can be reached at [email protected].

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of 1889 Institute.