Is A Sales Tax The Solution to Oklahoma's Education Funding Problems?

Oct 10, 2016

Oklahoma teachers haven’t received a statewide pay raise in eight years. But this November, voters will have a chance to boost teacher pay if they approve State Question 779, which would fund the raises through a one-cent sales tax.

Education advocates say this could prevent teachers from fleeing the state, or the profession, for better paying jobs. But opponents argue the proposal would create an entirely different set of problems.

THE CASE FOR MORE FUNDING

There’s a fairly widespread consensus in Oklahoma that education needs more funding.

Many Oklahoma classrooms are overcrowded. Teachers are leaving. And a majority of replacement teachers are under-qualified.

State revenue shortfalls have left school budgets so tight that classes are being cut. Some districts are going to a four-day-week to save money.

“Yes, it’s a problem,” said Dr. Marc Moore, Superintendent of Stillwater Public Schools. “I don’t think we have the resources that we need to meet the educational standards in Oklahoma.”

Moore has been an administrator in Oklahoma for 15 years. He’s been through multiple financial ups and downs and said it’s time the state develops a long-term strategic plan to fund education and raise teacher pay.

“We need to, as a state, figure out how to keep highly qualified, highly engaged teachers in the classroom,” he said. “Part of that is going to be money; Part of it’s going to be working conditions.”

STATE QUESTION 779

One solution is on the table and it’s State Question 779, championed by University of Oklahoma president David Boren. It’s a proposal to raise sales taxes one cent in order to fund different aspects of education, and voters will see it on the ballot in November.

The tax is projected to raise about $615 million a year, which would go in to an ‘Oklahoma Education Improvement Fund’ and be distributed by the legislature. If SQ779 passes it would create a constitutional amendment that all teachers get a $5,000 raise starting in the 2017-2018 school year.

Furthermore, all school districts would get money to improve grade-level reading, college and career readiness, and high school graduation rates. Oklahoma’s public universities would get about 20 percent of the funds to reduce tuition costs. Career Tech would receive about $2 million a year, and the rest would go to early childhood education programs for low-income and at-risk children.

Read the ballot language here.

Lori Dickinson is the Executive Director of the Edmond Public Schools Foundation, and she said this is the first step to keep teachers in the profession, and in Oklahoma.

“It does not fix, but it stops the bleeding, and it does give immediate hope- especially to the teacher crisis we have right now.”

Dickinson said state funding hasn’t kept up with student enrollment growth and she worries that if this doesn’t pass, academic achievement will slide.

“We can’t continue to have the cuts we’ve had and see continued excellence during that same time period,” she said.

State Question 779 is currently the only plan to offer financial relief for school districts, but it is far from a slam dunk, and has generated a lot of opposition.

BAD FOR BUSINESS?

Passing SQ779 will make Oklahoma’s sales tax among the highest in the nation. In some cities, it would push the rate to over 10 percent. Some opponents worry that a high sales tax hurts those with a low-income the most. Others say it will harm the economy.

Stillwater City Councilman, Will Joyce, is opposed to State Question 779. He fears it will conflict with his ability to raise money for local services.
Credit stillwater.org

Stillwater City Councilman Will Joyce fears city governments will suffer. He said municipalities use sales taxes to fix streets and pay for local services.

“We won’t be able to consider saying, let’s add a half cent to pay for a new fire station which this town desperately needs.”

He also worries the high sales tax will drive customers away from local stores—and toward the internet, which will ultimately decrease his city’s sales tax collections.

“We can only assume that the higher the sales tax is, the more incentive that is for people to go places where they don’t have to pay the sales tax, which is Amazon, or an online retailer,” he said.

At Merrifield Office Supply in downtown Stillwater, owner Joe Merrifield agreed a higher sales tax would create a challenge for him.

“We were up against a sale on two chairs that were $2,000 each... and when you factor in the sales tax on a $4,000 sale, I am $340 to $350 dollars behind when we start the quoting process.”

But that isn’t Merrifield’s biggest concern with State Question 779. He’s a big believer in public education, and wants to see it fully funded. But he doesn’t think a sales tax is the way to do it. He wishes the state would raise property taxes instead.

“I’m telling you to tax me more than others,” he said.

IS THERE ANOTHER SOLUTION?

Stillwater Councilman Will Joyce said state legislators have the power to make something happen, but so far, they haven’t.

“The legislature needs to do its job and fund the school system through the recurring revenue that the state collects.”

House Appropriations and Budget Committee Chair, Earl Sears (R-Bartlesville), does not deny that education needs more funding. But he said it’s going to be tough to achieve in this era of low oil and gas prices.

According to Sears, it’s an uphill battle to raise taxes in the legislature, and he doesn’t want to cut funding from other services. So he hopes to find money for teacher raises by reforming tax credits and exemptions.

He asked Oklahomans for patience.

“I personally believe they need to give us more time to try to work through all these positions… to see if we can make this thing happen,” he said. “I’d prefer doing it that way and not raise the sales tax.” 

But those in favor of SQ779 say the ballot proposal is a way to circumvent legislature, and there’s not enough time to wait.

Oklahoma Engaged is a collaborative series between KGOU and KOSU, with support from the Kirkpatrick Foundation.