Sunday, November 1, 2009

Weekly Opinion/Editorial

by Steve Fair
In November 2010, Oklahoma voters will vote on a proposed constitutional amendment that would tie common education funding to a regional average of Oklahoma’s bordering states. The so-called HOPE amendment would force the state to fund common education at the same per student level as the surrounding state average. According to, the regional average spent for common education per student is $9,078 and Oklahoma’s funding is $7,615 per student- the lowest in the region.

Currently common education gets thirty six percent of the Oklahoma state annual budget- by far the largest allocation of any agency. If SQ 744 passes, common education would receive nearly one half of the state budget.

The actual ballot language for SQ 744 is:

The measure repeals a Section of the State Constitution. The repealed section required the Legislature annually to spend $42.00 for each common school student. Common schools offer pre-kindergarten through twelfth grade.The measure also adds a new Article to the Constitution. It sets a minimum average amount the State must annually spend on common schools. It requires the State to spend annually, no less than the average amount spent on each student by the surrounding states. Those surrounding states are Missouri, Texas, Kansas, Arkansas, Colorado and New Mexico. When the average amount spent by surrounding states declines, Oklahoma must spend the amount it spent the year before. The measure deals with money spend on day-to-day operations of the schools and school districts. This includes spending on instructions, support services and non-instruction services. The measure does not deal with money spent to pay debt, on buildings or on other capital needs.The measure requires that increased spending begin in the first fiscal year after its passage. It requires that the surrounding state average be met in the third fiscal year after passage.The measure does not raise taxes, nor does it provide new funding for the new spending requirements.

The last sentence of the measure is very revealing. Passage of the proposal would create an “unfunded” mandate. SQ 744 would require the state to provide funding, but suggests no method on how to get those funds. Chairman of the House Appropriations and Budget committee State Representative Ken Miller, R-Edmond, says, “While the petitioners of State Question 744 may be well-intended, the question is irresponsible-it is a zero-sum game where one budget component benefits to the detriment of the other vital state service like transportation, public safety and health care. If this state question is approved, the people’s representatives will not be able to prioritize competing needs and will have no say on the largest single component of the state’s budget. Instead education policy will be arbitrarily set by a rigid regional formula.”

Realistically, if SQ 744 passed, the legislature would be forced to either raise taxes or reduce funding to other agencies to meet the requirement 744 would mandate. Some estimates of other agency cuts range as high as twenty percent. According to the State House fiscal staff, if SQ # 744 passes, personal income tax would have to be raised from its current level of 5.5% to more than 7% to raise the money SQ 744 mandates.

Here are just three reasons State Question 744 should not be approved:

First, forcing state government to increase funding to common education based on what bordering states are doing will not improve Oklahoma education. Oklahoma has a more fundamental problem- it is how we spend our education dollar. We have too many school districts. Oklahoma has 554 school districts, Kansas 304, Arkansas 271, Colorado 178 and New Mexico only has 84. Each of Oklahoma’s five hundred plus districts have buildings, buses and bosses. Consolidation is not a word anyone likes to utter, but if education wants to get serious about education and get the money to the classroom where it really makes a difference, the “C” word will have to discussed.

Second, education funding is not the only thing we need to improve in Oklahoma. Our state has crumbling infrastructure that is dangerous for school buses(or any other vehicle) to travel on. Oklahoma also ranks high in mental health issues, obesity, and drug use. If SQ 744 passes, either huge tax increases would need to be implemented or those infrastructure and social ills would face funding cuts. Neither alternative seems wise concerning these tough economic times.

Third, Oklahoman’s tax burden is high enough. According to The Tax Foundation, Oklahoma's taxpayers have gone from the 42nd highest state and local tax burden in 1977 to the 19th highest in 2008. Estimated at 9.8% of income, Oklahoma's current state/local tax burden is above the national average. Oklahomans pay $3,761 per capita in state and local taxes.

It is true that teachers are underpaid in Oklahoma. They rank a dismal 47th in the country among their peers, but all Oklahoma workers are unpaid. The average Oklahoman earns $5,000 less than the average American doing the same job. US Census data indicates that only two of our bordering states have lower per capita income than Oklahoma, but SQ # 744 is not the answer- it just creates more questions.

1 comment:

Mobro Ed said...

I read this recently in the Duncan Banner. What a great job of presenting a well reasoned explanation of SQ 744. A few years ago when Duncan was considering a sales tax for local school districts I wrote this letter to the editor.

If you have holes in your bucket, which makes more sense, start buying more water or fix some of the holes first? Before we throw more money at the school budgeting problems, the systemic root causes need to be corrected first. Increasing our taxes will treat the symptoms but they'll do nothing to correct the underlying causes. Why is Oklahoma having a problem meeting its education funding goals in the first place? The superficial “cause” is decreased revenue due to the economic down turn. Will raising our sales tax 11% help grow our local economy? We need to look deeper for the root causes. One of them is that Oklahoma has a lot of school districts with duplicate expenses and low scales of efficiency due to their small sizes.

In the early days of statehood when transportation consisted of horses or primitive automobiles on dirt roads, it wasn’t practical to travel very far to school. An hour would take you about five miles then, now it will take you 50. Is having eight separate school districts, each having their own administration, maintenance and transportation costs in a county of 43,000 part of the budget problem? Six of the Eight are within a 14 mile radius! Keep in mind these are school districts, not just schools. Texas has six times the population with only double the number of school districts. The Oklahoma legislature has put their toe in the water a few times, most recently with HB 1153 which extends the Oklahoma School Voluntary Consolidation and Annexation Act. Funding for incentives included in the bill have been made dependant on Oklahoma approving a state lottery. Depending on the state to encourage our citizens to gamble in order to maintain our education system doesn't seem like a sound solution to me. If we as Stephens county residents can’t make the tough decisions voluntarily can we really expect our legislators to do it for us? We need to act like adults and make the difficult decisions that have to be made. We must began to plug some of the holes in the bucket.

With the effectiveness in doubt, the systemic problems swept under the rug for a few more years and the unfair burden to the poor and those on fixed incomes I don’t believe increasing our taxes is the “solution” we need or can afford.