Solid Plan To Increase Education Funding

Image of OU President David Boren

Finally, a prominent Oklahoma leader has come up with the barebones of what I view as a workable and perhaps revisable plan to help bolster education funding in the state.

University of Oklahoma President David Boren has proposed a ballot initiative to allow voters to raise the state’s sales tax by one cent to help increase Oklahoma’s dismal funding of education.

Boren, according to news reports, said the increase would raise $615 million a year, and that $378 million could be used to give public school teachers a $5,000 raise. Oklahoma has some of the lowest average teacher salaries in the country and currently faces a major teacher shortage because of it. The state also ranks 49th in the nation in per pupil funding.

Boren said the additional money, among other things, would go to fund incentive pay for teachers, an issue pushed by conservatives. Some of the money would also go to higher education to limit tuition increases.

One of the first and somewhat negative reactions to the proposal came from the Oklahoma Policy Institute, a Tulsa progressive think tank, which argues the tax, if voted into law, would hurt lower income people the most because sales taxes, as we all know, are regressive. OKPolicy did note it supported more funding for education overall, but, as usual, it seems to want to have it both ways when it comes to funding education. It’s for it, but, well, there doesn’t seem any way to get it done. Parse through the lines in this final sentence of its statement about the proposal:

Oklahomans urgently need real tax reform to create a tax system that does not put the greatest burden on those who can least afford it and that collects enough to meet critical needs of Oklahoma families — not just for education but also health care, safe communities, and other public services to ensure a stable economy and strong quality of life.

Translation: We’re probably not going to support this proposal and we also know there’s not one iota of chance for “real tax reform” right now in our conservative-dominated state government. Also, education is important, but, well, is it AS important as, say, health care?

Watch for OKPolicy and the right-wing Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs to join together again to defeat another education funding proposal if Boren goes forward with it.

It seems to me that one obvious solution to the “regressive issue” when it comes to the sales tax increase would be to make it more progressive by exempting lower-income and middle-class income people from all or some of the “education tax” through income-tax credits or rebates. This might complicate the language on the petition drive to put the measure on the ballot, but at least it’s worth considering.

As it stands now, the state faces what will likely be a $1 billion shortfall next fiscal year, and state agency heads are getting informed that they could face cuts in their budgets. This complicates the ballot initiative even further.

If Boren and any type of coalition he helps to put together go forward with the proposal, those circulating the petition would need to collect 65,987 signatures in a 90-day period for the November 2016 ballot.

Sure, I agree that the tax proposal, as it stands, is regressive, but that can be fixed with credits and rebates in the tax code, and, it’s only ONE CENT. Even if the proposal stands as is, I would support it and urge other voters to do the same. We shouldn’t forget that lower-income people would benefit by better schools. This could enable them to raise their incomes. It goes together.

If this is what it takes to improve education funding, then we need to get behind it. We face a real emergency here when it comes to education funding. Let’s do something about it.