Our local schools need local funding
If you have been conscious in the state of Oklahoma in the past few weeks then you are almost certainly aware that teachers in the Sooner state are considering a walk-out. After the failure of efforts to increase teacher pay in recent legislative sessions, and after the success of a teachers’ strike in West Virginia, a list of demands has been generated by the Oklahoma Education Association. Unfortunately, the OEA’s list of demands consists solely of appropriations from state government and fails to address any of the issues about the environment in which teachers are expected to perform. There are hundreds of mandates placed on schools by state and federal government, not to mention annual testing that looms over classroom activity, creating great anxiety for students and teachers alike. In fact, according to a survey commissioned by the state Dept. of Education 62% of former teachers say it would take more than pay increases to get them back into the classroom.
There is no doubt that the demand for teacher pay increase must be answered, but it should be equally clear that there are other issues that are also causing our education professionals to look for employment in other fields or other states. Invariably those other issues go back to political considerations, with the other end of the puppet string in the hand of a public official Washington, D.C., or at 23rd & Lincoln. The plan to force the state Legislature to appropriate more money in order to fund teacher pay will only increase that political control of the classroom. Instead, we would be wise to look for a way to provide more funding that reduces the ability of lawmakers to micromanage educators. With that in mind, I suggest that allowing an increase in ad valorem taxes would be the most efficacious way to accomplish this goal.
Ad valorem, property tax, is a local funding source. Portions of the rate are set by local election. Allowing an increase in the local support levy from a maximum of 10 mills to 20 mills, or adding an option to the county-wide levy to allow voters to increase it by up to 10 mills, would give the public the power to approve additional funds for schools. The individual school districts could then use approved funds to increase teacher pay. However, numerous districts already pay more than the state minimum. And there are districts that receive little or no state funding for anything other than transportation expense. Thus, a mandate from the Legislature to increase teacher salaries will either not be equal for all or will force districts that already go above and beyond to spend even more, with no guarantee that the district will receive new funds to cover the difference. Raising the allowable millage rate on ad valorem taxes puts the approval power in the hands of the taxpayers, can be adjusted to the needs of individual districts, and can be utilized for increased teacher pay or for other needs.
While an increase in the maximum millage for schools will do much to solve the immediate problem of teacher pay, it’s not the only thing that can be done. Part of the Gross Production Tax(GPT) is earmarked for K-12 education. There are several proposals, both in the Legislature an as initiate petitions, to reduce or eliminate exemptions and reductions of the GPT for wells meeting certain conditions. Any of these that pass into law will increase the amount of revenue generated and thus also add to the amount that is automatically sent to education. Another area where good can be accomplished would be to eliminate Tax Increment Financing(TIF) districts. TIF districts redirect tax money to economic development programs that primarily poach jobs from neighboring communities. Because ad valorem taxes are the most common target for TIFs, the result is that local funding of schools is reduced. The end result is that the entire state subsidizes local TIF districts as state education funds are equalized in order to bring schools with less funding up to match the rest of the state. Getting rid of TIFs would restore local funding to any school afflicted with one of these crony capitalism districts as well as reduce the amount by which they sandbag state education spending. Eliminating TIF districts would put hundreds of millions of tax dollars back into schools and local government.
While K-12 education has not fared well in terms of funding, Careertech has not suffered in the same manner. This has a lot to do with the fact that less than 16% of technology center funding comes from the state, compared to almost 60% of K-12 education money being from state government. With an increase in the maximum available for schools in ad valorem, removal of tax favoritism in GPT, and elimination of TIF districts, our public schools would experience an increase in revenue from sources that are beyond the direct control of the state Legislature. Only those who believe that our legislators have been doing a good job with state education should have any reason to be opposed to that.