A Plan to Plan to Plan
This week, State Senator David Holt announced that teachers in Oklahoma deserve a $10,000 raise.
In related news, puppies are adorable.
I don’t want to sound unappreciative. Of course teachers in Oklahoma deserve at least that much. It’s been a long time coming. The problem is, of course, that raises take money. And that money has to come from somewhere. This being Holt’s sixth year in the Legislature, I started to wonder what he’s been doing so far to lay the tracks for such an outstanding proposal. So I checked his official Senate bio:
Having introduced an income tax cut bill every session, David has also worked to advance the conversation about how tax cuts can grow Oklahoma’s economy. David has also been a leader in fighting for taxpayers to have more control over their tax dollars, including efforts to bring more transparency to the Legislature and to reform laws that place government unions over taxpayers. David has also fought for better public schools, having authored legislation to give parents the ability to turn around a failing school and to expand public school options for families in the inner cities of Oklahoma City and Tulsa. David has also been a leader in efforts to increase voter participation, in light of severely declining turnout in Oklahoma.
Not to sound like a downer here, but it’s hard to raise teacher salaries while cutting state revenue. No matter how much Holt and those like him want to pretend differently, a major portion of our current budget deficit is a direct result of tax cuts. Continuing to pursue them has neither stimulated the economy nor provided additional funding for all the things state government is supposed to support.
Holt also touts his own efforts to label schools as failures and turn them over to parents. He has a record as being a no excuses legislator when it comes to school performance. Meanwhile, I have a record as being a no excuses blogger and administrator when it comes to discussing the performance of our state leaders.
They’ve failed to fund public education properly for years. They’ve created a projected $900 million budget hole for next year (which will probably be worse). They want to blame OPEC. Too bad. We’re just judging you by your outcomes. And if we don’t like them, hopefully we’ll instigate our own takeover and hand the reins of budgeting and public policy over to people who we trust more.
I try to be hopeful, often in the face of every piece of evidence telling me not to be. Sometimes, though, you just can’t choose how to feel. Still, I have been following the press surrounding Holt’s proposal, including this interview with Oklahoma Watch. Here is how Nate Robson framed it:
A Republican senator said he had a “moral obligation” to propose a complicated, six-part plan to give Oklahoma teachers a $10,000 pay raise without a tax increase, despite the state facing a $900 million budget shortfall.
The $400 million proposal, released Thursday by Sen. David Holt, R-Oklahoma City, instead would seek funding from overhauling tax breaks, by consolidating the number of school districts and by diverting a portion of future budget growth to education.
I agree that this is a “moral obligation.” I also agree that it’s a complicated proposal. I just don’t agree that it’s a plan. Parts of it are a plan to plan. Others seem more like a plan to plan to plan. To explain further, we will need to look at each of the six pieces of legislation that Holt has proposed.
SJR 57: Constitutional amendment; requiring consideration of tax reform; prohibiting granting of tax credits under certain conditions.
The text of the measure basically reads as an ultimatum to end tax credits. It would also require the recovered revenue to go to teacher salaries.
This measure enacts a new Section 2.1 of Article 10 of the Oklahoma Constitution. It requires the Legislature to consider significant reform of tax credits, rebates, exemptions and deductions. If such significant reform is not enacted prior to January 1, 2018, no credit against any state tax shall be granted in calendar years 2018 and 2019. Significant reform would be determined to have been met if changes to the laws relating to tax credits, rebates, exemptions and deductions result in an increase of $200 million in the amount available for appropriation by the Legislature for fiscal year 2019, as compared to the amount for fiscal year 2017. The State Board of Equalization would make this determination. If significant tax reform was enacted, the Legislature would be required to appropriate at least $200 million in additional funds to be used to increase teacher salaries. This section would expire and be repealed on July 1, 2030.
The funny part about this is that the challenge to getting OU President David Boren’s penny sales tax came from conservatives who claimed to be concerned against logrolling – the practice of creating a ballot question that contains more than one topic, as this one clearly does. It’s a good thing the state Supreme Court ruled that Boren’s plan is in fact constitutional. Otherwise, Holt’s proposal would have no chance.
The problem I see is that he wants the voters of the state to command future legislators to find the credits that can be reformed. He’s setting a deadline and saying find $200 million to cut, or nobody gets a tax credit. This would have to be completed by the end of the 2017 legislative session (or an ensuing special session) to go anywhere. Holt isn’t saying he has an idea where those reforms can be found; he’s just saying he’s certain they’re there and that we had better find them or else. It’s a plan to plan.
SB 1238: Teacher pay; providing for an increase in teacher compensation.
This is a classic if A and B, then C kind of proposition.
For the 2018-2019 school year, each full-time certified teacher shall receive a pay increase equivalent to a Five Thousand Dollar ($5,000.00) increase in the previous school year’s compensation, exclusive of any one-time stipend or overtime payments.
SECTION 2. The provisions of this act shall not become effective as law unless Enrolled Senate Joint Resolution No. 57 of the 2nd Session of the 55th Oklahoma Legislature becomes effective as law.
If voters approve Holt’s initial state question, and the Legislature finds $200 million to cut in tax credits, then all teachers get a $5,000 raise.
In this scenario, A is a longshot. And B – picture nearly 150 legislators trying to hash out which credits get cut – is a longer shot. First, they’d have to navigate through all the lobbyists swarming the Capitol. If those two things happen, surely nothing can get in the way of teachers getting raises, right?
Not even the current $900 million shortfall we’re facing?
We’re simply moving money from pile to pile. Maybe a better way to say it is that we’re simply moving deficits around to appear flush.
Before we start promising future allocations to be appropriated off-the-top (a practice about which I heard several legislators moaning last Wednesday), first we have to figure out how to pay our current bills. If the state has any chance at not cutting education funding further this year, the Legislature will have to reform tax credits now.
SB 1256: Teacher compensation; creating the Securing Teacher Compensation Fund; providing for apportionment of revenue.
This bill creates a new fund of off-the-top revenue to be distributed exclusively for teacher raises. It’s called the Securing Teacher Compensation Fund. It counts on future revenue growth, of which the first $200 million would be exclusively and permanently be reserved for increasing teacher salaries.
That sounds great, except for a few problems. One is that student enrollment is increasing. We are going to need more teachers. Another is that our support employees work 40 hour weeks, in many cases year-round, and make way less than our teachers. We’ve shifted the cost of textbooks and technology to our bond funds (those of us with any bonding capacity). We’ve moved utilities and maintenance into the building fund. And we still can’t afford to properly staff our buildings.
Our budgets are being held together by threads, and teacher salaries are just one of the problems. It’s a huge one; these are the people who spend every day with our students. It’s the problem we need to address first. If Holt’s proposal were to come to full fruition, though, we’d just be getting started.
SB 1278: Teacher pay; directing the State Board of Education to implement certain salary increases upon certain apportionment.
This is where Holt takes that magical $200 million and turns it into $5,000 raises again. If he passes all these bills, he can say he supported public education, even if we don’t see a penny.
Sidebar: I will give Holt credit for one thing. There’s zero chance these bills have the ALEC or OCPA seals of approval.
Another problem with this pair of bills is that we have to see growth in state revenue – as we continue to cut taxes. Remember, Holt will keep authoring bills to cut taxes. He believes it’s the right thing to do. I respect that. It’s just no way to fund the raises he promises on the backs of unicorns and rainbows.
Maybe that’s too harsh. Here’s how Holt’s press release describes SB 1278’s hopes and dreams:
We know that the economy will improve sometime in the future, and we know that state tax revenues will rise as well. Rather than an oral commitment, this makes it lawfully required that future revenue growth goes first to teacher pay raises. The current shortfall actually presents an opportunity to do something we might have otherwise found impossible. Two years ago, if you had suggested that the state find $200 million in existing spending and redirect it to teacher pay raises, it wouldn’t have happened because no one wants to rob Peter to pay Paul. But this year, we have no choice but to take money from Peter because we don’t have it. So, the hard part will already be accomplished. When revenue growth returns, it will no longer be spoken for. Let’s turn today’s pain into a future opportunity to increase teacher pay.
It’s a Doerflinger-esque statement. We have an opportunity. Someday my prince will come. Or something like that. The economy can’t suck forever, and when it finally recovers from what we’ve done to it OPEC, all the growth will go to public education. We mean it this time.
SJR 58: Constitutional amendment; creating the School Modernization and Renew Teaching Commission
Now we’re going to compound the good deeds we’re doing by consolidating school districts:
This measure adds a new section of law to the State Constitution. It adds Section 9 to Article 13. It creates a commission to propose a new school district map that would contain only 200 school districts. It provides for appointments to the commission. It requires the commission to submit its proposal to the Legislature by a certain date. It establishes requirements that the proposal must meet. It provides a process for how the proposal is to be considered by both branches of the Legislature. It provides for consideration of the proposal by the Governor. It states that this section of the Constitution shall expire on a certain date.
There’s this pervasive myth that we’re burning money by having so many school districts in Oklahoma. Each one needs management. What we fail to discuss too often is that many of our small, rural districts function with one administrator only.
Holt wants a state question that will force consolidation to an arbitrarily chosen number of school districts – 200. I don’t know how he arrived at that number. In fact, nobody knows how he arrived at most of the details in his bills. As he states in his interview with Oklahoma Watch:
I didn’t need to talk to education folks because there is no education policy in here. This needed expertise in politics, which I have.
I didn’t think it was imperative to work with a bunch of people because this is a complicated plan. I didn’t want people saying it couldn’t be done or saying we should wait to do this later. Instead, I wanted to unveil a plan now and see if anyone else can come up with something better.
Leadership is not waiting to have a consensus. Good leadership is coming up with a bold plan and then seeing if you can come to a consensus.
Actually, that’s the opposite of good leadership, Senator Holt. Consensus is something that involves the opinions of people who do the work. You want to close school districts, but you don’t think your ideas have anything to do with education policy? You’re wrong. Simply wrong.
I know you say schools won’t close – just districts. What you fail to realize is that you really can’t save money without closing them. You’re being bold and pandering to your metropolitan voters, casting the problem of school funding as an effect of having too many rural districts. What you’re not doing is putting yourself into a position in which you’ll have to make the decisions about which districts close.
Look, I’m a product of large, suburban schools. Until 2002, that was all I had known, as a student or a professional. Then I spent two years in Medford as a secondary principal. What you’re proposing would save little while costing communities more than you can understand.
SJR 59: Constitutional amendment; requiring State Treasurer to certify certain savings amount; providing for use
This is a third state question (for a guy who frequently calls for a state constitutional convention to sort out how convoluted it is, he sure proposes a lot of constitutional amendments) that would shift all savings from consolidation into more teacher raises.
Let’s say, for the sake of argument that we consolidate to exactly 200 districts and 300 superintendents lose their jobs. At best, that saves about $30 million. At best. Again, some of these superintendents are also building principals and teach classes. In many small, rural districts, the superintendent does much more than run the district.
I know $30 million sounds like a lot. In the grand scheme of the state budget, though, it’s not. That’s not even another $1,000 to teachers, or to other costs.
The fact is that what Oklahoma spends per pupil is well below the regional and national average. It’s a numerator and denominator thing. If the amount we spend doesn’t change, and the number of students doesn’t change, then per pupil spending doesn’t change.
Overall, Holt’s proposal is built on wishes. I categorically reject the last two bills because I don’t think school district consolidation is the financial windfall some want it to be. At best, it’s a political distraction pitting city folk against country folk. When our state leaders are unwilling to roll back a .25% tax cut that costs the General Revenue Fund between $120 and $140 million this year, consolidation should be political non-starter.
The two bills in the middle are tied to future revenue growth. I’d love to think it could happen, but it’s not something on which to build a plan. Again, if we keep cutting taxes, the chances for revenue growth just grow slimmer and slimmer.
As for the first two bills, I say why wait? Reform tax credits and off-the-top spending in 2016. What’s the problem with that? Courage is what you do now, not what you plan to plan to do in the future. Someone who would seem to agree is state Representative Jason Dunnington.
As Dunnington wrote on Facebook last night:
Many folks in HD88 and members of the education community have asked my opinion of recent proposals to raise teachers salaries without raising taxes. First, let me say I am thankful that my colleagues on the other side of the aisle are beginning to see what the business community and Democrats have been saying for years. Without a renewed investment in Oklahoma education we will not produce the quality workforce needed for growth and prosperity.
To be blunt, when Republicans have 71 of 101 votes in the House of Representatives, 39 of 48 in the State Senate, and every state wide elected office, if you want to raise teacher pay then raise it. With a supermajority Republicans have all the votes needed to do it now. To propose future raises based off finding new efficiencies in government, or repealing available tax credits, deductions, rebates or exemptions would make sense if we didn’t need those to cover our current billion dollar shortfall. The fact is, Oklahoma doesn’t have enough revenue to cover our existing obligations let alone increase investment in our most basic functions of government. If raising teacher salaries is really a priority, even a moral obligation, then new revenue must be a part of the conversation or recent proposals will be nothing more than lip service.
I don’t know if Dunnington’s comments are a direct response to Holt’s proposal, but I’ll treat them as such. The Republicans control the entire Legislature. They have every statewide office. If they think they can cut taxes, reform tax credits, and raise teacher salaries, they should do it right now. It’s an election year, after all. It’s an opportunity!
The truth is that there is no silver bullet to fixing the state economy, the revenue streams that fund public services, or the problems resulting from a systematic de-funding of public schools over the last eight years. If school consolidation were that plan, I’d bite my teeth and support it. It’s not.
I appreciate that Holt at least had an idea – a complicated idea – and put it forward. Maybe some of this will happen, someday. I have more than 1,000 teachers working for me, though, and they’re tired of waiting for someday.
What can you do for us now, when you hold all the cards? That’s the question. Quit planning. Start doing.