So what are the consequences of the election for education in Oklahoma? State Question 779, the “Boren plan,” would have raised the state sales tax by 1% to fund a $5,000.00 teacher raise and generally help fund education in Oklahoma. But the voters did not approve it. The voters also increased the super majority party numbers in both the State House and Senate. A couple of majority party legislators promptly announced that both of these show that Oklahomans really don’t believe we have an education problem in this state. Republican Governor Mary Fallin stated that this just means the local school districts and teachers need to “step up,” because four day school weeks (which some school systems have gone to, in view of state funding cuts) present a bad image for the state. Everyone certainly can have their own opinions as to why 779 was defeated, and what all this really means, and, of course, I have my own take.
I talked to many constituents, both before and after the election, that had a variety of reasons why they had concerns about SQ 779; many legitimate concerns about the question. Several voters were on fixed incomes and simply could not afford to pay more in taxes. Some, simply don’t care for sales taxes as they are the most regressive form of taxation, where the poorer you are, the higher percentage of your income is paid in sales taxes, whereas, the higher your income, the lower the percentage of your income is paid in sales taxes. If SQ 779 had passed, it would have made Oklahoma the state with one of the highest sales tax rates in the nation. Some argued that higher sales taxes would hurt local retailers, particularly in border areas of the state like here, where consumers would simply hop over the state line and pay lower taxes for the same products or increase their internet purchases. Some didn’t like the fact that passing this tax would put municipalities in a bind, as, in Oklahoma, municipal governments can only assess sales taxes, and no other form of taxation to fund their needs is allowed. Others, didn’t like the idea that to pass this tax would once again mean that the taxpayers were letting the legislature off the hook for not doing its job to properly fund education in this state. But, every single one of all those constituents felt like we have a HUGE education problem in this state, specifically, that the legislature has failed to properly fund public education. No one that I talked to thought there was not a problem. No one.
Currently, we rank 49th in the nation for our per pupil state spending on education, but Mississippi enacted a new tax this year, specifically for education, which probably will move them past us, so that we will likely be dead last in the country. Oklahoma has cut funding for public education more than any other state since 2008. Adjusting for inflation, Oklahoma has cut state aid to schools by 26.9%. The next worse state is Alabama which has only cut their schools by 14.2 % since then, or 12.7 percentage points less than our cuts. Regionally, Texas is the next worse state than Oklahoma, but Texans spend $1,262 per pupil more than we do every year. For Oklahoma to get up to the regional average of per pupil spending, we would need to expend an additional $1.4 billion on education over what we spend right now, and to get to the national average, we will have to spend $2.6 billion more. However, I doubt we will spend more, quite frankly, the question will more likely be how much more are we going to cut public education? After all, the super majority has been more interested in what lucrative tax breaks we can give to wealthy corporations and millionaires than getting our kids educated.
Another point to consider in looking at the future of education in Oklahoma, is the fate of another State Question. Around here, SQ 790 was portrayed as an attempt to support the Ten Commandments on the Capitol property, but Republican Lieutenant Governor, Todd Lamb, stumped all around the state for what it really was, the effort to bring vouchers to Oklahoma and suck even more money away from public education. Fortunately, most Oklahoma voters saw SQ 790 for what it really was and it was also defeated.
Finally, even though the super majority gained a few seats in both houses of the Legislature, a significant number of the anti-education old timers are now gone. A huge number of new faces will be sitting in both chambers. And many of them, with our new Senator, Michael Bergstrom, being one of them, are vowing to fight for public education, instead of against it. Time will tell, but I am certainly hopeful that we will have a majority in both houses and on both sides of the aisle that will actually fight for education. I think Governor Fallin is wrong. It is not time for teachers and school districts to “step up,” they have been doing their part all along; it is time for the Legislature to “step up” and do its job to promote and protect our kids and our future as a state.
Proverbs 4:13 Keep hold of instruction; do not let go; guard her, for she is your life.