779, also called the Oklahoma One Percent Sales Tax, is a constitutional amendment that will increase the sales tax by one percent and will raise a predicted $615 million per year for education.
A sales tax increase is not the best possible solution for our students, but it is a good start to fixing the problems associated with state funding for public education. Consider the following facts about Oklahoma’s education system:
According to US Census data, in 2013 Oklahoma was the fourth lowest in state spending per student on education. That same data also revealed that as a state we have made the deepest cuts to school spending out of any state since the 2008 recession.
In 2015, Oklahoma ranked 48 out of 50 states in Education Week’s annual ranking. That score was based on scores in three categories: a Chance-for-Success Index based on early foundations, school year development and adult outcome, in which we scored a C-; a K-12 Achievement Index that measures student gains in core subject areas year to year, in which we scored a D; and the school finance analysis, in which we scored a D+.
2016 is the eighth year Oklahoma teachers have gone without a pay raise, despite inflation. This has occurred alongside teacher layoffs in smaller districts and increasing class sizes in the state.
The result of this increasing burden on teachers was described by John Waldron, a high school history teacher at Booker T. Washington in Tulsa and current candidate for state senate, in a blog post for OK Policy.
“Today, after six years of cuts, I have 147 students. To give you a sense of what that means, consider this: if I give an essay question to each student (something I believe is a critical part of an upper-level course) and spend five minutes on each essay, it takes over 13 hours to grade them. That’s about how much planning time I have in three weeks of school,” Waldron wrote. “It has also meant eliminating my elective classes to teach more survey courses. And, of course, 147 students means 147 names to memorize and 147 sets of individual circumstances to respond to. You see the dilemma. How can we deliver quality instruction to every student, under increasingly stressed conditions? How can we make bricks without straw?”
Waldron’s account, although startling, only begins to describe the conditions of teachers and students elsewhere in the state. Tulsa Public Schools receives 54 percent of all revenue collected in property tax from the city. However, 55 percent of public school students in Oklahoma attend small town or rural schools where cuts have had a higher impact. Small towns and rural communities simply do not have the funds to give extra support to their schools, nor can they generate enough collective action to raise funds.
The USDA Economic Research Service reports, based on 2010-2014 American Community Survey data, that the poverty rate in rural Oklahoma is 18.9 percent, compared with 15.8 percent in urban areas of the state. Additionally, 15.4 percent of the rural population has not completed high school, while that figure in urban areas is 12.2 percent.
My hometown, Inola, OK, is one of these rural schools. They were also one of the first in the state to move to a 4 day school week as a result of budget shortfalls. This move, although necessary for the survival of the school, has put an incredibly heavy strain on both teachers and students.
Students are clocking 8 hour school days in class from 8 to 4:15 Tuesday-Friday. Teachers are charged with keeping students on task for class periods that last more than an hour and a half. 8th graders will be using the same textbooks I used in the 8th grade, with years of inappropriate middle school drawings marked out in black sharpie.
Despite having no raises, teachers have to purchase all the additional supplies and resources they will need in their classrooms. Additionally, the lack of janitorial staff means they have to stay after school to clean their classrooms.
The $615 million would provide constitutionally protected revenue for education funding that would be audited annually to confirm the proper use of funding and would go in full to raises for teachers, higher education, grants, early childhood programs and vocation and technology education.
However, despite the gains this amendment would provide it is not favored by everyone, and is only a small step in the right direction.
Inola high school english teacher Barbie Barnes said, “Teachers need pay raises, no doubt, but it’s a shame it has to come at the cost of taxes. The ones this will hurt the most are low-income families who are already scraping to buy gas and groceries.”
A one percent sales tax increase would put us around 9.5 percent, even with or exceeding Tennessee, the state with the current largest sales tax. It is also concerning that 3.25 percent, or roughly 20 million dollars of the revenue gained will be going to vocation and technology education, which is generally well funded.
It is also concerning given our state’s tendency to “redirect unessential funds” that after constitutionally protecting a certain amount of money for education, they might choose to either not bolster education in other ways, or blatantly take away other systems for education funding.
This last claim may seem a bit reaching, but I don’t have much faith in a legislature that can’t find money for schools, but is actively proposing an amendment to the constitution so they can use state money and property for religious purposes (see below).
All this is to say, we need to vote yes for 779 because hardworking teachers deserve a well earned raise. We need to vote yes for 779 because it is our responsibility as a state to provide for the education of our children. We need to vote yes on 779, but this is only a bandaid solution to a larger problem. We need to pressure our legislature to make education a priority, and straighten out Oklahoma’s severe budgeting flaws.