As part of the recent discussion around HB 3398, the “Education Savings Account” Legislation proffered last week by State Representatives Jason Nelson and Tom Newell, the issue of what constitutes adequate public school funding was brought front and center once again.

In okeducationtruth’s excellent two-part review of the legislation, a reference was made to a Twitter conversation between Representative Nelson and fellow blogger Nicole Shobert. In the exchange, Nelson once again posed the question, “How much does it take to fully fund public schools.”

I will give Representative Nelson credit for putting himself out on the social networks to debate and discuss his proposals, albeit in 140-character blasts. At the same time, he is a master at diluting the real point through the use of vague language or rhetorical devices.  He knows that most of the people with whom he is arguing will not be able to answer this question with any real clarity.

The question of “how much is enough” is loosely derived from the logical thought experiment devised by Ancient Greek philosophers called the Sorites Paradox. It starts with a heap of sand.


Sorites is the Greek word for “heap.” Imagine, for instance, a heap of sand on your desk. A heap contains maybe 1,000,000 grains of sand. If you take away a single grain of sand, is it still a heap? I think most of us would say, “of course it is!” Nothing’s changed from any outward appearance, after all. If I take two grains away? Three? Four? Ten? No difference, of course it’s still a heap of sand.

The problem is, I can just keep doing this – picking away a grain of sand out of the heap and asking you if it still a heap. Under the assumption that removing a single grain does not turn a heap into a non-heap, the paradox is to consider what happens when the process is repeated enough times: is a single remaining grain still a heap? (Or are even no grains at all a heap?) If not, when did it change from a heap to a non-heap?

A more formal statement of these premises would be:

Premise 1: 1,000,000 grains of sand is a heap of sand.

Premise 2: A heap of sand minus one grain is still a heap.

Repeated applications of Premise 2 (each time starting with one fewer grains), eventually forces one to accept the conclusion that a heap may be composed of just one grain of sand (and consequently, if one grain of sand is still a heap, then removing that one grain of sand to leave no grains at all still leaves a heap of sand.

This paradox works in reverse just as well as illustrated in the following conversation:

Q: Does one grain of sand form a heap?
A: No.

Q: If we add one, do two grains of sand form a heap?
A: No.

Q: If we add one, do three grains of sand form a heap?
A: No.

Q: If we add one, do one hundred grains of sand form a heap?
A: No.

Q: Therefore, no matter how many grains of sand we add, we will never have a heap. Therefore, heaps don’t exist.

This concept also works with someone who is rich. Clearly if we take a dollar away from someone who is a millionaire, it will make little difference. The rich person is still rich. What if we keep doing it? At what point do they become poor? $100,000? $10,000? $5000? $132.79?

This paradox has been the subject of intense debate among philosophers for thousands of years. If this is your cup of tea, you can find even more esoteric and complex discussions of the Sorites Paradox online.

Here’s the most basic argument for it.  The problem arises from vague predicates. In short, it depends on how we define a heap? Thus, the paradox comes from vagueness of language. It states that no word is well-defined; no word has boundaries that can make it definite.

If we set definite boundaries based on specific numbers of sand grains or other parameters, this would fail to be a paradox. For example, if we said that a heap of sand = 10,000 grains or more; then a collection of sand with 9,999 grains would not be a heap and might be more accurately defined as a pile.

Some similar “paradoxes”:

How many cars must one own before one is “rich”?
How long must one go without food before one is “starving”?
How long must one speak a language before one is “fluent”?
How many hairs does someone need to lose before he is bald?

Obviously, the answer to all of them is “it depends” (or perhaps “what a stupid question”).

Clear as mud, right?

Okay, so let’s bring this back to Representative Nelson’s question relative to much money it takes to fully fund public education.

There is little debate that public schools in Oklahoma receive a heap of money from each year’s State Budget. For FY2014, the heap of money appropriated to common education was over $2.3 billion.

Yet, as has been well-publicized, this heap of money is about $200 million short of what it was in 2009 with approximately 40,000 more students state-wide. As published in the OKPolicy BLOG, Oklahoma ranks number one in the nation for education cuts since 2008. Per pupil spending has decreased 22.8% and FY2014 spending is down to $2,737 per student (an $810 decrease since 2008) – the fourth lowest total in the country.

The 2014 Oklahoma budget is the largest budget in state history yet the common education share of the state budget has dropped from 36.1% to 33.8% since 2008. And 33.8% represents common education’s smallest share of the state budget since before 1991. (Thanks to oktruths for these stats)

The bottom line is the Oklahoma legislature has taken quite a few large shovelfuls of sand out of common education’s heap since 2008.

At what point do we no longer have enough?

Despite these cuts, Representative Nelson and others seem believe that public education still has a “heap of money” sufficient to provide every child in Oklahoma with a first-class education. As a result, we are in a position to have to defend and scrape for every dollar we try to add back to our appropriation.

Therefore, when Representative Nelson asks this question in the future (and he surely will), we should be prepared to give him an answer.  Over the next few weeks and months, we need to work on providing our legislators with as many specific numbers and associated rationale as we can.

Granted, with education funding this is difficult to do because of shifting mandates, changing demographics and student counts, and other unplanned costs.

The topic of adequate public education funding will always be present, and it should. We must ensure that our schools are serving as good stewards for our state’s tax dollars. I don’t think it is responsible for us to simply ask for more money from the public coffers without detailed rationale for how it will be used to improve education.

For this reason, I can understand the vague premise behind Nelson’s question. And I believe it is our job to provide him (and Oklahoma’s tax payers) with reasonable and well thought out responses to how we will use additional resources to enhance teaching and learning.

I am certain that our state educator advocacy groups: OEA, CCOSA, OSSBA, and others are already working on identifying the key needs and proposals for the next fiscal year budget.  The first goal on CCOSA’s 2014 Legislative agenda is to restore per pupil funding to pre-recession levels. That is a good start.

I also applaud TPS Superintendent Dr. Keith Ballard’s call for increased compensation for educators in yesterday’s Tulsa World interview. We can use State Superintendent Janet Barresi’s $2K for Teachers ploy as a starting point; however, instead of a one-time payment from district’s carry-over funds which could not be sustained, how about the legislature adding this $115 million to our state appropriations?

Moreover, instead of funding the school and district ACE and RSA remediation funds at less than 30 percent of what was originally intended, how about doubling this amount by adding $14 million to this line item?

This is just a start. There are many more items we can add to our response to Representative Nelson the next time he poses his “how much is enough” query? We also have to monitor the upcoming debate over pension reform to ensure that legislators are not digging shovelfuls of sand out of one side of the heap, while adding spoonfuls on the other side.

The children that represent Oklahoma’s future deserve a heap of the money derived from taxes and other revenue streams.  As a state, we cannot continue to take money from public education and expect greater outcomes.  Nelson and Newell’s legislation simply pulls more sand from the heap and puts it somewhere else.

Despite Nelson’s claim that this would actually add money to the funding formula by removing students while maintaining a portion of their funding to public schools, this is far from certain.  The majority of school costs (teacher salaries, transportation, utilities, etc.) are fixed. The loss of additional student funding will not decrease these costs, yet we will be left with less money to educate the students who remain.  Granted, at some point, reductions in staffing and other costs may be possible, but those savings may be years down the road if they ever happen.

The Ancient Greeks were not able to define what constitutes a heap. As much as we can, we need to work with our Governor and Legislature to help define this for common education.

One thing is for certain: they need to quit digging away at the heap we have left!