The initiative petition drive to put a measure on the November general election ballot this year to provide an estimated $615 million more annually to Oklahoma’s educational systems is getting underway.
The Oklahoma Supreme Court recently ruled in a 6 to 3 vote that the legalese in the measure’s language doesn’t violate the state’s constitution that only allows one subject in any one law. The $615 million devoted exclusively to education, which would fund $5,000 annual raises for teachers, would be generated by increasing the state sales tax by one penny. Here’s the basic information about the proposal, which I support.
— OurChildrenOK (@OurChildrenOK) January 19, 2016
As I wrote earlier, the state does not have a high sales tax rate as some reporters have generalized in the media here. Oklahoma ranks 36th in the nation in terms of the state sales tax rate, which is 4.5 percent. What makes Oklahomans pay overall more than in most states are additional sales taxes levied by local governments, which won’t or can’t diversify their revenue streams.
Some will argue the distinction isn’t important, but that’s not the case. It’s obviously an issue that needs to be addressed in regards to the state’s overall taxation structure and in the debate over the one-penny increase for education, which would, yes, be a regressive tax, meaning low-income people would spend more of a percentage of their income on sales taxes for groceries and many basic living expenses.
I favor the one penny increase for reasons I’ve outlined here. I agree with fellow progressives that sales taxes in general favor the rich, but here are three caveats in this particular case: (1) The increase would make the most positive impact on low-income school children, (2) the state or perhaps even local governments could create an education sales tax rebate program for people at or below the poverty line, and (3) this proposal seems the most feasible way to actually do something to improve education funding in a pragmatic sense in the current political milieu.
I won’t rehash in great detail in this particular post the state’s dismal per pupil spending or teacher salary rankings compared to other states. We’re dead last in this region among neighboring states. We’re also facing a major teacher shortage because of low pay along with a state budget revenue failure right now. State officials are predicting what looks like for now an approximate $1 billion budget shortfall or more next fiscal year.
What I want to discuss in this post is the opinion piece published in NewsOK.com a few days ago by Steven Agee, dean of the Meinders School of Business at Oklahoma City University, and one of his colleagues, Russell Evans. Both oppose the one-penny proposal, which is the opposite of the strong support given to it by University of Oklahoma President David Boren and a pro-education coalition he helped to create.
1-cent tax isn’t best education solution https://t.co/ixDkj0wV5E
— Steven Agee (@StevenAgee) January 17, 2016
Agee and Evans make salient arguments about the regressive nature of the sales tax increase, although their remarks about how such a tax could lead to the centralization that they say leads to a “race to the middle” in terms of educational outcomes seems over ideological, confusing and a stretch to me. Perhaps, the op-ed format always leads to a certain degree of reductionism, but I accept Agee and Evans are well intentioned.
It’s the solution they offer about dismal education funding here on which I want to focus. Here’s the key paragraph in the article:
Instead, individual locales should be freed from a restrictive state funding formula that discourages local financing via the property tax levy. Cities should be free to choose to be high property tax/high education investments cities or not. People would be free to vote with their feet and move to these cities. The state could even provide low-income mobility support payments to make it easier on families to self-select into these education-rich communities.—Steven Agee and Russell Evans
I’m unsure if the authors are referring at least partially to Oklahoma State Question 758, which was overwhelmingly passed in 2012. It lowered fair cash value increases used to calculate property taxes from 5 percent to 3 percent annually a year in the state. Maybe they mean something deeper, more plural and even more structural on a specific basis about education funding’s relationship to property taxes and fair cash values of property here. What I do know is that many economists, education and cultural scholars see educational funding overly tied to property taxes as an inherently racist and unequal system that privileges the school systems of predominately wealthy and white communities. Government promotion of a racist educational funding divide based on the skin color of school children can be traced back to post-Civil War America after the scourge of slavery ended.
Agee and Evans write, “Cities should be free to choose to be high property tax/high education investments cities or not. People would be free to vote with their feet and move to these cities.” Given the current funding mechanisms, isn’t that the same as endorsing, at some philosophical level, moving into the suburbs? That was once called “white flight.” What about the authors’ reference to the possibility of “low-income mobility support payments” for the less affluent? Isn’t that the same concept of a school voucher, even if applied only to public schools, that would take money away from school districts with more poor people living in it? How can those poor people “self-select into these education-rich communities” if they don’t have the money to live in these “education-rich” communities because of housing costs in the first place?
In addition, SQ 758 in 2012, endorsed by conservatives, passed overwhelmingly, which at least indicates at some level—I would argue a major level—many Oklahomans are opposed to property tax increases. This is different from school bond issues in which debt is eventually retired and then more debt can be accrued for even more school improvements while keeping overall property taxes relatively stable. So how do we free up the system for larger property tax increases and get people to vote for them? That seems like a critical question. Agee and Evans don’t answer it.
My point here is not to criticize Agee and Evans, but to try to ensure there’s a real debate or at least some available counter information and ideas about arguments opposing the one-penny proposal. Agee and Evans are aware of the historical inequality of educational funding through property taxes in Oklahoma and throughout the country, especially in southern states, which led to school desegregation in the 1970s. They also know that homeowners on fixed incomes could theoretically lose their homes in what they envision as “high education investments cities.” It’s all theoretical because, well, it isn’t going to happen. I don’t see their proposal as any less regressive than the one-penny sales tax, nor do I see it as something that could realistically be implemented or would help solve anything here when it comes to inadequate education funding.
— OurChildrenOK (@OurChildrenOK) January 17, 2016