Thoughts on Obstruction and Serious Conversation
If my math is correct, and it usually is, Oklahoma school districts have lost over $900 million in State Aid since the 2008-09 school year. Even if the Legislature could pull a minor miracle and keep funding for schools flat for the 2016-17 school year, the total revenue decline would be more than $1 billion in just eight years.
The funny thing about losing that much money is that you miss it. It hurts. The only thing that hurts worse is when you realize it isn’t coming back. That’s when you have to act boldly.
To me, that is what we’re seeing with Governor Senator OU President David Boren’s penny sales tax plan. Born of necessity – because frankly, nobody is proposing any other credible solution – it stands as the only option on the table. Sure, the Oklahoma’s Council for Pushing ALEC – or whatever OCPA stands for – came up with an alternative. It includes several one-time solutions – such as selling off art collections (that the state doesn’t technically own) for teacher raises.
Here’s a fun fact for people who’ve never had to cobble together a school district budget and worry about paying thousands of teachers and support employees: you can’t use one-time funds for raises. What are you going to do the next year if nothing to match those funds is in place?
Then again, why would we expect a group that has invested decades trying to destroy public education to bring anything serious to the conversation? I only bring them up because they carry water for and to certain obstructionist legislators who share their voucher-centric agenda. They’re part of the conversation, whether they have any business being in it or not.
I haven’t yet written about the Boren proposal for a couple of reasons. First, I have a lot of friends and colleagues working in municipal government. I fear that a state penny sales tax will limit their ability to continue generating local revenue through their own initiatives. We need well-funded schools, but we need well-funded city governments as well. It’s not a trade-off for me. They’re both critical needs.
Second – and maybe this should be first – is the fact that over the last ten years, our state government has methodically reduced the tax base by passing income tax cuts (that really didn’t benefit the middle class or the working poor), increasing tax credits for corporations, and pushing nebulous amendments to the state constitution that limit growth in ad valorem collections.
As Oklahoma Watch points out, some who are critical of the Boren plan feel like the state is replacing income taxes that are progressive with sales taxes which are, by definition, regressive. As Boren points out, however, “Our choice is to either do this, or nothing.” In other words, we can lament the fact that our elected leaders knew they were tying their own hands, or we can propose a solution.
That billion dollar projected hole in next year’s state budget reflects the billion dollars in lost state aid that schools have seen over the last seven (going on eight) fiscal years. Reversing this trend through legislative means is a feat that is against all odds. While I’d welcome some teamwork and help from our elected leaders, until that happens, why not let the people decide if a penny sales tax is the best way to help public education.
Then again, one of the OCPA’s side ventures has filed suit – against the reigning State Teacher of the Year, among others – claiming the Boren plan violates the Oklahoma Constitution. In short, they claim the initiative constitutes a “textbook example of logrolling.” By logrolling, the plaintiffs mean that the proposal violates the state’s single issue rule. The fact of the matter is that the proposal is for one thing – a penny sales tax, and what should be done with the proceeds of that penny. The plaintiffs know this. Then again, as I said, they have a long, long history of trying to block all things that would benefit public education.
What they forget, however, is that public schools are responsible for teaching 90 percent of students in this state. What they forget is that parents and communities support their local schools and the people who work in them. What they conveniently try to forget is that those parents and communities are sick and tired of budget cuts and teacher shortages, and that voters increasingly realize that the school districts didn’t create these problems.
Oh, and 2016 is an election year. Every House seat and half the Senate seats are up for grabs. I recently read that more than 30 seats will be impacted by term limits. If incumbents have opponents, they all can be. If incumbents throw up their hands and say there is nothing they can do to prevent cuts to education funding, then we should see more challengers.
With all that said, one conservative Oklahoman I respect tremendously is Phyllis Hudecki. She has been – among other things – Governor Fallin’s first secretary of education. She has been involved with the Oklahoma Business Education Coalition for more than a decade. She recognizes the problems that shrinking education budgets and stagnant teacher pay have brought to our schools. She published a strong editorial in this Sunday’s Oklahoman saying as much:
Our teachers are leaving the state in droves. In fact, schools began this year with about 1,000 teacher vacancies and a record number of adults in classrooms without teacher preparation.
Teachers haven’t had a state-funded raise in nearly a decade, which is, in part, why the state ranks 48th in teacher pay. We have a moral and economic imperative to fix this now.
While money is not the only answer for all that ails our schools, it is certainly a large part.
The Oklahoma Business and Education Coalition recently commissioned a study of teacher attrition and pay in Oklahoma, Texas and comparable jobs in the private sector. The study showed that teacher salaries in Oklahoma are about 16 percent lower than teacher salaries in Texas and 28 percent lower than median salaries for similar workers in Oklahoma’s private sector.
Nibbling around the edges and tinkering with smaller changes may save a little, but it will not catapult funding to the levels needed now.
The only comprehensive funding plan on the table is the ballot initiative to add a penny sales tax. The measure would provide approximately $426 million to increase teacher salaries.
Ideally, the upcoming legislative session would include serious movement towards rolling back tax credits that really haven’t proven to stimulate the economy. Failing that, we have the Boren plan. At the least, Oklahoma voters should have the right to decide its merits – and to do so without obstruction and misinformation from right-wing lobbyists.