Education fail, part the infinity: The best and (mostly) worst of SQ 779 (Tulsa Voice)

By Barry Friedman 

“I personally don’t like sales taxes particularly.”

That was OU President David Boren, during an interview with Intermission Magazine in January, talking aboutState Question 779, an amendment on November’s ballot that would raise sales taxes statewide by 1% to help fund education in Oklahoma. That the cornerstone of this amendment—the increase itself—is loathed by the man who came up with the idea is, all things considered, in keeping with how things work in these parts. On the other hand, Oklahoma has cut more from education since 2008 than any other state in the union, so we’re in no position to quibble about how we claw our way out of a ditch we so purposefully dug for ourselves.

Boren has a final word for his critics.

“And, again, I say if you have a better plan to raise the $600-million, let’s see it.”

Here’s how State Question 779 would work: if passed by voters, it would institute an across-the-board one percent sales tax and earmark those funds specifically for higher, general, and technical education. The money raised would be constitutionally protected, meaning some well- (or not so well) meaning legislator couldn’t divert funds to prisons or tourism or to his or her dreams of gutting public education and replacing it with for-profit charter schools and Christian madrassas. By some estimates, SQ 779 will bring in approximately $615 million per year in state revenue beginning July 1, 2017. Further, it will guarantee public school teachers a $5,000 per-year raise, which is good, because at the moment, the state ranks 48th nationally in teacher salaries. 

The new revenue will be divvied up like so:

  • 69.5 percent will be allocated to public schools 
  • 19.25 percent to public higher education 
  • 3.25 percent to career tech education

Hold up! Only how much for career tech?

Another column for another time.

Let’s continue.

There’s also language in the measure that will prevent representatives from supplanting general revenue education funds (think of it as legislative Three-Card Monty) with projected SQ 779 money. 

Not even our state legislators would do something so cynically counterproductive, though, right?

Of course not.

They did something even worse.

Of the ten agencies receiving the largest state appropriations, Higher Education receives the deepest cut in FY 2017—15.9 percent compared to its initial FY 2016 funding.

One of the features of SQ 779 is that it will prevent future legislatures from deviating from the baseline appropriation that’s set for education, the latter of which in 2016 was 14.4% of state expenditure—down from 18.66 since 1980—and already inadequate. So what did legislators do? They cut the baseline before 779 even became law—down to 12%. To put this in real cash money, in FY 2017, higher education will receive $153.4 million less than it did in 2016. Now, let’s say SQ 779 passes and, in fact, brings in the promised $615-million. Higher education’s 19.25% cut of that comes to $118.38-million, which means even if all goes well, higher education in Oklahoma 2017 will be down $35.2-million from 2016.

Now that’s some legislative ratfu*king.

Even our old friend Wayne Greene of The Tulsa World, a semi-regular on these pages, also smells a rat (and we almost never agree).

There might be more than the sales tax proposal driving the legislative campaign against Boren and higher education. There’s probably also a strain of old-fashioned anti-intellectualism involved and some partisan politics. I suspect there’s also an element of jealousy. Boren is the greatest president in the history of OU, probably the greatest higher education leader in state history. … By comparison, those looking to tear him down are pissants of state history.


Let’s also dispel the notion that Oklahoma spends too much on educational administration—a favorite talking point of the right—and if we just took care of that, classroom sizes would decrease, graduation rates would increase, and teachers would get apples on their desks everyday. Gene Perry, policy director for the Oklahoma Policy Institute, who knows more about this than is probably healthy, wants to put this canard to rest.

However, even under a highly optimistic estimate, we could not find enough savings out of district administration to significantly improve funding for instruction. 

Which brings us back to SQ 779, which is an awful, regressive way to fund state education.

Here’s why. 

Poor people spend a greater portion of their income on goods and services that are taxed than do wealthier Americans. The more you raise the sales tax, the less disposable income—and there already isn’t much.

After essentials—housing, transportation (incl. gas), food, utilities, and clothes—the poor have 15% of their disposable income left over, and the $150K+ crowd has about 40%.

And in Oklahoma, unlike many states, food and clothing is subject to sales tax. 

Put this another way: if a family of four spends, say, the national average of $191/week on food—$764/month—that family is paying, at a 10 percent rate (where most rates statewide will go if 779 passes), $76.40 a month in sales tax alone on things like Fruit Loops, Mozzarella cheese, and Juicy Juice. 

The larger issue here is one of responsibility, maturity. A state that wants quality education should consider the revolutionary idea of … paying for it exclusively from general funds—not gimmicks like sales tax earmarks (or the lottery for that matter). Good schools and an educated workforce benefit us all, and we all should pay for it and not have it augmented by some slot player on a LUCKY DUCKY machine. And if there isn’t enough money in the budget to pay for such quality, raise or restore the taxes that caused the mess in the first place. 

David Boren did the only thing he could here and should be applauded—though, for the love of God, do we really want the dean of Oklahoma politics in the twilight of his career schnooring around the state on behalf of education. For years, state legislators thought tax breaks for horizontal drillers were more important than class sizes and laughable tax rebates were more important than teacher salaries, so, clearly, something had to be done. SQ 779, unfortunately, is not it. It’s the wrong idea at the wrong time—inefficient, subject to manipulation, and burdensome to the very people who can least afford it. It simply cannot be approved in November. 

But of course it must be.

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