Where Is The Money For Teacher Raises?

The real question to ask about potential teacher raises next year in Oklahoma is whether the Republican majority in the legislature is serious about finding the money to fund them or if it’s just another GOP meaningless political performance.

I tend to think it’s the latter at this point. In fact, public education and higher education funding is getting slashed once again THIS fiscal year as we found out yesterday. The state faces a revenue failure, which means revenue collections came in recently with a more than 5 percent drop over the budget estimate.

The revenue failure means an immediate $11.1 million cut for public education and a $4.6 million cut to higher education, according to a media report. This, combined with an expected $878 million shortfall for next fiscal year, probably means the grandiose plan for teacher raises is mainly political posturing.

A House committee, however, has passed a measure that, if passed and signed into law, would increase teacher salaries by $6,000 annually over three years, but there’s a huge problem with the plan. It doesn’t identify the funds to pay for it.

Gov. Mary Fallin, of course, has advanced a proposal to increase sales taxes on everything from doctor’s visits to funeral services. Perhaps, we should call these death taxes. Pay more at the doctor’s office for, let’s say, a bleak diagnosis, and then pay more for dying later. But even if the proposal passes, and I doubt it will, would it be enough to fund teacher raises? I don’t think so.

I’ll address Fallin’s plan later in this post, but I want to focus for a moment on the plan to raise teacher salaries. Under the plan, teachers would receive a $1,000 raise the first year, a $2,000 raise the next year and a $3,000 raise the following year. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this plan, although the hyperbole surrounding it seems a bit much.

For example, the bill’s sponsor state Rep. Michael Rogers, a Republican from Broken Arrow, who heads the House Education Committee, was quoted in the media like this about the plan:

Everyone would like to be able to do more now, but we have to deal with the reality of the current fiscal situation. Not only can this plan be achieved, but it would put us on track to being a leader with surrounding states in teacher compensation.

I appreciate Rogers’ enthusiasm for the raises because Oklahoma teachers are paid some of the lowest salaries in the nation, but it leaves out a major point. What’s to prevent surrounding states from raising their teacher salaries as well and offering better benefits. I find it highly unlikely Oklahoma will become “a leader with surrounding states in teacher compensation” in any conceivable future right now.

Yet the main sticking point is Fallin’s “bold” sales tax plan, which expands the tax to services not previously taxed by the state. Some of those new taxes make sense, but others don’t. The largest segment, for example, of the new tax revenue would come from the use of utilities, such as electricity and natural gas for heating, which would impact low-income households and people on fixed incomes the most. That doesn’t make sense for humanitarian reasons. (Note the lack of sanctimonious outcry by the Oklahoma Policy Institute.) What’s more, unlike State Question 779, an overall state sales tax hike proposal that was defeated by voters in November, the new money in Fallin’s proposal wouldn’t even be dedicated to education.

So the money could go to fund the legal defense of the array of lawsuits brought against the bizarre legislation that gets passed each session, or it could go to projects and initiatives that only benefit a small segment of the population, or, more than likely, it would just allow the state to come a bit closer to breaking even while the wealthiest Oklahomans and the state’s oil and gas titans enjoy the extra money they’ve received from recent income tax cuts and tax breaks

The middle class and low income households will pay for those tax cuts to benefit the rich like they always do here under the prevailing conservative philosophy now rooted deep in the state’s red soil. It’s called the Oklahoma Standard.