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Countdown: One Day

April 1, 2018

This week, the Legislature passed a series of bills that raised taxes, increased the state education budget by 19 percent, and modified the state salary schedule to provide significant raises for teachers. They also passed legislation to mandate raises for support staff and restore some of our operational costs. Finally, Thursday, they amended the original package to remove one of the sources of revenue: A hotel/motel tax. The governor then signed most of these bills.

Between the passage of the education package in the senate Wednesday night and the repeal of the hotel/motel tax Thursday afternoon, I had already polled my district. Including teachers, support staff, and administrators, the survey had 969 responses. Of those, 93% still wanted to walkout on Monday, with 83% wanting to stay out multiple days. As a superintendent, I appreciate the clarity. Making the decision to be out of school Monday was easy. I can’t imagine what might happen Monday at the Capitol that would make the 83% change their minds, but I’m a real never say never kind of guy.

Never tell me the odds.gif

This walkout, if you ask many teachers, is long overdue. Ten years of budget cuts, unfunded mandates, and stagnant salaries have taken a toll on the profession. I don’t think anybody expected the Legislature to fix a decade of neglect in one sweeping motion. Faith isn’t restored that easily.

I happen to think they made good progress. They passed a tax increase for the first time in 28 years and raised salaries significantly. Still, there are good reasons for thinking this isn’t enough.

  1. While an average increase of about $6,100 in salaries will improve Oklahoma’s place in regional and national rankings, we also know that those are moving targets. Other states don’t wait ten years to raise salaries.
  2. In 1992, Oklahomans passed State Question 640, which requires that the Legislature reach a 75% majority in each chamber in order to pass a tax increase. A tax cut, on the other hand, only takes 50%. We saw this dynamic play out perfectly in about 24 hours this week. This is no way to fund core state services.
  3. I saw reports last week that the Democrats think funding for this package is about $150 million short and that Republicans think (after repealing the hotel/motel tax) that it’s about $20 million short. It’s very possible that one group is overstating the gap and that another group is understating the gap. It’s politics. And it’s the dynamic that concerns me more than the gap itself. The Legislature builds a budget based on estimates. They could estimate high on one revenue stream and then low on another. The immediate gamesmanship that followed a brief period of bipartisanship is a threat to any future progress.
  4. Support employees received raises as well, but far less than what they deserve. These are the lowest-paid employees in our schools. They feed our kids, drive our buses, run our offices, and repair our buildings. When we can’t find enough teachers, they help us manage large classes. The Legislature really needs to revisit this piece of the puzzle.
  5. Retired teachers deserve cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs). My mom, who was a special education teacher for 29 years, retired in 2001 and hasn’t had a COLA in a decade either. Meanwhile, her HealthChoice premiums continue to increase. She sees less of her retirement every year. (FYI – I’ll run a guest blog from her in the morning.)
  6. This week’s budget restored $50 million (outside of the raises) to the overall funding of public schools. While that’s a start in the right direction, let me explain why that doesn’t go very far.
    1. Of the $50 million, textbooks get $33 million. To put this number in context, that was the amount allocated to textbooks in 2008, the year I became Director of Curriculum in Moore. Since then, school enrollment has increased by 60,000, and the cost of textbooks has significantly increased.
    2. That leaves about $17 million restored to the formula to put back into classrooms. By our estimates in Mid-Del, our portion of this amount would be enough to bring back about seven of the 60+ teaching positions (100 positions overall) that we cut two years ago. It helps. It really does – but not enough to make significant dents in class sizes throughout our district or the state.
  7. Future Legislatures could roll back some or all of this progress. They could also add to it. We have no way of knowing, but that’s how government works. I would say that overall, the 56th Oklahoma Legislature has been the most education-friendly body of lawmakers we’ve had in a decade. The group that took office in 2017 included the biggest group of new members since the state adopted term limits. The best way to ensure that the momentum continues – once the walkout ends – is to vote for candidates who will continue chipping away at policies that threaten the stability of our state’s budget.

By the way, when you go to the Capitol tomorrow, you should understand that #oklaed has allies in both parties. Look for the ones who consistently engage with educators, even especially when avoiding them would be easier.

Marcus McEntire

That’s Marcus McEntire from Duncan – one of the freshman legislators who takes the time to listen to his constituents. At this historic moment, we have a chance to help our legislators understand that we’re not just talking about teacher raises.

One thing I plan to do this week is to ask the House members I know to hear SB 1086, which passed in the Senate on March 15th with a 30-9 vote (with nine senators not voting). According to the fiscal impact statement provided by the Oklahoma Tax Commission, this measure could provide an additional $120 million in revenue as early as the 2020 fiscal year. They did not estimate how it would impact the budget they’re planning right now, but there’s nothing wrong with planning ahead. Cynthia Rogers, an economics professor at the University of Oklahoma, wrote this for the Oklahoman:

The capital gains tax deduction primarily serves as a tax loophole for the wealthiest individuals in the state. Based on Oklahoma Tax Commission data, 17,274 taxpayers claimed the deduction in 2014. Of these, 824 had a federal adjusted gross income of $1 million or more. This group claimed 64 percent of the total capital gains tax deduction. Individuals with a federal adjusted income of $50,000 or less claimed only 2.4 percent of the total deduction.

As a member of the Incentive Evaluation Commission, I voted to eliminate the capital gains tax deduction. We simply have no evidence that the program provides a positive net benefit to the state. Only 10 other states treat capital gains tax deduction is a similar manner as Oklahoma does. Of these, only five allow real property to qualify for the deduction. PFM could find no examples of state-level evaluations of capital gains tax deductions.

I’m thankful for the progress we’ve seen this session. I hope it continues. We should never be satisfied that we’ve done enough to help school districts recruit and retain teachers or to fully fund what happens in the classroom.

Don’t just go to the Capitol tomorrow. Go inside. Find your representative and senator. Make a new friend.

See you there.

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