The premise behind State Question 744, a proposed constitutional amendment, is straightforward. If approved on Nov. 2, it would require the state fund common education at a six-state, per-pupil regional average.
It does not mandate tax increases nor does it mandate cuts at state agencies.
SQ 744 is desperately needed here because the state currently ranks 49th in the nation in per-pupil spending and is last in our regional area, which includes Texas, Arkansas, New Mexico, Kansas, Missouri and Colorado. By starving schools over the decades, Oklahoma lawmakers have created a prevailing anti-education climate in the state. It’s now part of the state’s historical narrative that Oklahoma schools are drastically underfunded, and this has real-life consequences beyond tarnishing the state’s image. SQ 744 fixes that.
SQ 744’s opponents, which include powerful corporate interests, have launched a fear-mongering campaign against the measure, running television advertisements that talk about specific tax increases and specific cuts to specific programs. That’s nonsense. Don’t buy into the scare tactics. How can anyone know what Oklahoma’s lawmakers will do with the budget in coming years? If passed, SQ 744 would simply require lawmakers to come together and work out a budget that will have to anticipate the phase-in of the new funding, which has been estimated at $850 million to $1.7 billion over a three-year period.
As I’ve written before that might mean the state will need to look carefully at its current tax exemptions for big corporations or consider different interpretations of SQ 640, a measure passed in 1992 that makes it virtually impossible to raise taxes. Remember this: In recent years, lawmakers have passed income tax cuts that have primarily benefited the state’s wealthiest citizens. Let’s be real. Does anyone think the state’s rich folks will someday suddenly stop demanding tax cuts so schools here can be adequately funded here?
Lawmakers have financially starved our public schools too much and for too long, and it’s time for a major historical correction.
The scare tactics of SQ 744’s opponents are based on what will happen if the measure passes. So let’s look at that from the other side and argue what will happen if SQ is defeated.
If SQ 744 is defeated, Oklahoma will remain known throughout the nation as an anti-education state that places corporate tax exemptions and tax cuts for wealthy people above school children.
If SQ 744 is defeated, the state’s fate is sealed for years. Without SQ 744, common education will most likely face major, debilitating cuts over the next couple of years, and those cuts will not be restored until there’s a major political shift in the state away from the right-wing, anti-public schools extremism that has come to define us. Who sees that happening anytime soon?
SQ 744’s defeat would mean crowded classrooms, more teacher layoffs, less technological equipment for students, fewer textbooks, a high dropout rate, fewer college graduates and a less qualified workforce.
If SQ 744 is defeated, the historical record will show that in 2010 many of Oklahoma’s then elite political leaders-from Gov. Brad Henry to OU President David Boren-helped to stop average school funding in a place that has tragically underfunded its schools for decades. Note the word “average.” It’s central to the debate over SQ 744. These political bigwigs, who also include OSU President Burns Hargis, both gubernatorial candidates and U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, took a strong stance against average. We just can’t have that average funding for schoolchildren here, they argued, because it’s too expensive. I guess average is just too good for Oklahoma kids.
The question deserves to be asked before the election: What will it say about Oklahoma if state voters reject simple average funding for schools?