The Oklahoman has begun a disingenuous and disjointed editorial campaign to help ensure the failure of the one-penny sales tax proposal to help improve education funding here.
Let’s be clear about one thing before I outline all the details and deploy the obvious rebuttals: Under its current ownership and management, The Oklahoman will never support any significant increase in funding to public education no matter what the state’s financial circumstances. The newspaper’s opinion page is so conservatively radical it wouldn’t surprise me and shouldn’t surprise anyone else if it called for the complete privatization of public education systems here.
University of Oklahoma President David Boren, along with the coalition, Oklahoma’s Children, Our Future, are attempting to start an initiative petition drive to collect signatures that would put a measure on the 2016 general election ballot that, if passed, would raise the state sales tax by one cent. The money generated by the increase, estimated at $615 million annually, would be used to give much needed $5,000 year raises to teachers in order to retain and recruit them and also would be used to bolster funding for higher education and vocational schools. Here’s a pie chart of the funding breakdown.
A group affiliated with the right-wing and extremist think tank, the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA), has filed a legal challenge against the petition drive, arguing it violates the state constitution that laws and legal measures must be about only one subject to prevent what is called in political parlance “logrolling.” Until the Oklahoma Supreme Court rules on the issue, backers of the proposal can’t collect signatures. The OCPA challenge is one of the most petty and cheap political moves I have ever witnessed in this place. I have no problem with OCPA issuing public arguments against the proposal, but the legal challenge is designed to hassle well-intended intelligent people, who are simply trying to make a difference in children’s lives here.
So there are a few facts The Oklahoman always seems to completely omit or soft peddle in its editorial campaign against the proposal: (1) Oklahoma has cut education funding the most of any state in the country since the 2008 economic downturn. (2) The state’s per pupil funding, 49th in the country, is the absolute lowest in our region of the country and next to the bottom in the nation. Arkansas and New Mexico spend more on education funding than Oklahoma, not to even mention Texas, which attracts many of our finest teachers. (3) The state faces a teacher shortage because their salaries, also 49th in the nation, are next to the bottom in the country.
— OurChildrenOK (@OurChildrenOK) December 3, 2015
The opposition to the proposal also includes people on the political left. They claim sales taxes, in general, are regressive because low-income people spend more of their overall income on basic purchases, such as groceries and clothes. I wholeheartedly agree with this overall premise, but there are important caveats in this particular case that make me strongly support the sales tax proposal. So let’s start with this argument as I go through the arguments against the proposal and offer rebuttals.
Lower income people would spend more of a percentage of their income to fund the one-penny increase and this is wrong. There are two major rebuttals to this argument. First, low-income students would benefit the most from this proposal through smaller class sizes, engaged teachers and better facilities. Education is the only honest and non-criminal escape from poverty. It’s only one penny. It’s not going to bankrupt anyone and, in fact, could lead to a path out of poverty. Second, the legislature could adjust the tax code to allow for “educational tax rebates” for low-income families on their tax returns. While the measure doesn’t include such a provision, which I was told was discussed among the proposal backers, that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be added to the tax code after the measure passes and its impact on low-income people is factually determined.
Legislators will just end up cutting other state appropriations to education if the sales tax proposal passes. The proposed measure, according to Boren, “would contain language designed to set a baseline level of legislative appropriations.”
Oklahoma’s sales taxes are already too high. This is not true. Oklahoma’s sales tax of 4.5 percent is below the national average, and we have relatively low property taxes here. It’s true that once local sales taxes are added the number rises substantially, but that’s an issue that needs to be addressed at the local level. Funding another MAPS project in Oklahoma City to, say, build a stadium or funding a new county jail to house the casualties of the war on drugs in this country and the future of public education are not morally equivalent. Our school children here, especially those from low-income families, need more teachers and better facilities. Meanwhile, the state legislature in recent years has cut the state’s income tax rate to benefit the richest people among us. That’s not morally right, either, but can anyone honestly argue that those tax cuts will be rolled back anytime in the near future, if ever? What’s the point of fighting a battle against these income tax cuts that will obviously end in defeat. Many people have ALREADY fought that battle and they lost. It has also been suggested that cities and counties in Oklahoma start searching for more ways to collect taxes from online purchases made by residents. Maybe that’s an answer, or maybe there are other sources of revenue for cities. Here’s the contradiction: Some city leaders in Oklahoma City and Tulsa argue that the sales tax proposal could hurt their cities financially down the road, but an under-educated population of low-income people isn’t going to have the moneyto spend anyway and these entities will end up spending more on law enforcement and social services.
“We are facing, I think, really the dismantlement of public education in Oklahoma. I don’t think that’s an alarmist statement.”–OU President David Boren
More money doesn’t necessarily improve educational outcomes. The Oklahoman has been making this argument for decades, and that argument has led us to where we are today in terms of our test scores and low college graduation rate. We have an educational funding crisis in the state. The state educational system is really in survival mode because of the inadequate funding. It’s almost laughable that we spend so much time debating whether to flunk third graders or not over reading scores when the solution is simply to flood the system with good teachers and teaching assistants that would allow more one-on-one instruction. It’s impossible to do that without an increase in educational funding and an increase in teacher pay. Why would anyone want to teach here when school districts in Texas pay a lot more?
I see the problem with the debate over the issue is that few leaders, besides Boren and some others, are looking at it holistically. Everyone has their vested interest or stake in the issue, and it’s usually political ideology, and it’s coming from both the right and the left. Education and learning is a crucial endeavor. It’s always the path to better lives and communities despite how much gets paid overall in taxes. Even if the proposal gets defeated by voters at least the awareness-level of our education funding crisis will be raised here.
— OurChildrenOK (@OurChildrenOK) December 4, 2015