Guest blog (Michelle Cantrell): The Case for SQ 744

In the spirit of full and vigorous debate on state policy issues, OK Policy is pleased to post this guest blog by Michelle Cantrell challenging our position on State Question 744.  Michelle is the mother of three boys in the public school system, and a frequent volunteer at school.  She also volunteers for various other organizations, including the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission.

As a strong supporter of State Question 744, I would like to respond to the Oklahoma Policy Institute’s arguments against, and argue for, the proposal.

  • State Question 744 will improve the overall economic health of the state, resulting in more revenue for all budget areas.

Increasingly, when looking to relocate, companies consider quality of life issues, including the public education system. When Oklahoma is competing with surrounding states to attract businesses, ranking dead last in school expenditures is a huge strike against us.  According to the Economic Policy Institute, there is a direct correlation between spending on primary and secondary schools and the business climate, and increased spending can increase property values.  Investing in education “is the best way to achieve faster growth, more jobs, greater productivity, and more widely shared prosperity.”

Failing to provide appropriate spending for education can cost our state more in other areas.  An OECD report summarizing studies of non-economic benefits of education states that education results in better overall health and greater life expectancy.  Further, parents with more education have children with higher cognitive development and higher future earnings.  People with more education are more likely to save money and make better consumer choices, and are less likely to rely on public assistance even when they are entitled to that assistance.  They also are less likely to engage in criminal activity.   Increased spending can lead to reduced student drop out rates, which ultimately increases lifetime wages.  The amount of lost income from a student who drops out is staggering—the loss of lifetime earnings from students who dropped out in just one year in Oklahoma was almost 4 billion dollars. Thus, inadequately funding schools could ultimately result in higher costs for healthcare, public benefits, law-enforcement, and prisons.  Short-changing schools is penny-wise and pound-foolish.

  • State Question 744 will continue to allow our elected officials discretion while still protecting our children’s education.

For too long, Oklahoma’s elected officials have approached the budget process backwards when it comes to education by first asking how much money the state has and then looking for areas to cut.  SQ 744 reverses that process.  If the bill is passed, our legislature will determine the minimum amount that must be spent for our state to remain competitive in the region and for our children to receive a decent education.  Then they will determine how to get there.  The amendment does not dictate the exact amount of spending—it merely sets a minimum based upon the surrounding states, repealing the current, outdated minimum of $42 per capita and replacing it with one that recognizes the current costs of education and allows us to compete with surrounding states.

Basing school expenditures upon the averages of surrounding states is more logical than basing it upon fickle economic cycles.  The amount my children’s school receives should be based upon competing with the surrounding states and providing a decent education, not whether the stock market went up or down.  The only discretion that elected officials will give up is the discretion to cut education spending below a level that is competitive with surrounding states.

  • State Question 744 is necessary to provide long-term education planning for our state.

Our state has eighteen short years to educate our children and produce adults that are college or career-ready and ready to compete for jobs in an increasingly competitive world.  Every year is critical, yet almost every year there is another budget crisis.  The yearly fluctuation in funding prohibits long term planning for the well-being of our children.  A reliable, consistent funding amount will allow our elected officials, school administrators, and teachers to make long-term plans for the success of our children.  How can you plan to turn around test scores when you don’t even know how many teachers you will have in any given year?  Education is not like roads and highways.  In times of economic crises, a few potholes can be endured.  But a missed year for education has long-term consequences and costs.  Children in our state must have the opportunity for a decent education in order to succeed, and each year is critical to their success.

  • If the six surrounding states can adequately fund education, Oklahoma can too.

The Oklahoma Policy Institute presents hypothetical numbers to show how educational spending would drastically increase, reducing spending on other social programs.  However, this does not mean that other programs will not grow.  In fact, under their own hypothetical, there would be money left over for growth in other programs in every year but one.  The hypothetical increase in education spending is deducted exclusively from the state’s budget, even though money for education comes from multiple areas that are likely to increase as well. In fact, according to the Oklahoma State Department of Education, local expenditures, which typically make up 23-25 percent of school funding, have traditionally increased at 7 percent per year.  Assuming the $5.06 billion in total expenditures given by the Oklahoma Policy Institute, one can presume approximately $1.2 billion is derived from local funding.  Factoring that amount into equation, with an annual increase of 7 percent, results in a substantial reduction in the amount of state budget money going to education—around $260 million less than the Oklahoma Policy Institute claims:

Total Education Local State & Federal
FY11 total 5,057,271,079 1,163,172,348
FY 12 increase 392,000,000 81,422,064 310,577,936
FY 13 increase 415,000,000 87,121,609 327,878,391
FY 14 increase 889,000,000 93,220,121 795,779,879

Factoring in federal dollars, which are also likely to increase, would further reduce the state’s expenditures.

I agree with Oklahoma Policy Institute that other departments, such as healthcare, are under funded.  But to presume that educational increases will only come at the cost of other departments is conjecture.  After all, if surrounding states are able to manage funding schools at a similar average, why wouldn’t Oklahoma?

There always are reasons for not spending more money on education.  However, those reasons must be weighed against the benefits.  Overall, if Oklahoma is to compete for business, ensure its economic viability, discourage the continual cycle of poverty, and decrease its prison population, we must invest in public education.  Those who believe that education should be our highest priority should vote yes on SQ 744.

The opinions stated above are not necessarily the opinions of OK Policy, its staff, or its board. This blog is a venue to help promote the discussion of ideas from various points of view and we invite your comments and contributions. To see our guidelines for blog submissions, click hereClick here for a complete list of State Questions on the ballot in November.


Former Executive Director David Blatt joined OK Policy in 2008 and served as its Executive Director from 2010 to 2019. He previously served as Director of Public Policy for Community Action Project of Tulsa County and as a budget analyst for the Oklahoma State Senate. He has a Ph.D. in political science from Cornell University and a B.A. from the University of Alberta. David has been selected as Political Scientist of the Year by the Oklahoma Political Science Association, Local Social Justice Champion by the Dan Allen Center for Social Justice, and Public Citizen of the Year by the National Association of Social Workers.

One thought on “Guest blog (Michelle Cantrell): The Case for SQ 744

  1. As a former two-term school board member and higher ed professional, no one in this state values education more than I do. My wife is a teacher who spends a substantial amount of our income every year for her own materials and supplies, just like practically every teacher in the state. However, there is so much wrong and misguided in this post, practically in every sentence, that I had to respond. In fact, there is so much wrong that there’s not room or time to go into every detail. Instead I will make these points.

    The historical period from which the author draws her points is not in existence at this time. We are in the worst economic downturn since the Depression and there is good reason to believe it will not improve for the next several years, if then. The researchers who study these types of blowouts say that historically they run a decade on average, and we’re only in year three. That means that arguments that might be viable in “normal” economic times have to be adjusted, the data used to back them have to be amended, the possibilities and limits for future action have to be seriously considered. The author did none of this. One example, the author at one point justifies some of her position on an annual 7% increase in local spending. Really? Seriously? Promise that to mayors across the state right now, out of the personal pockets of every voter for 744. They’ll take you up on it in a heartbeat.

    And because of the national nature of the downturn, the regional averages that everyone here is hoping will boost the spending will likely be coming down as the 2009, 2010, 2011 numbers start coming in. So much for that “consistency in planning” and “giving our elected officials discretion” concepts which would never have been uttered if the author had considered what all states, not just Oklahoma, are facing for the next several years to come.

    The underlying story to all the advocacy of this funding increase, to all demands for increased spending on public education, is the belief that increased dollars translate into increased education. Beyond the insult to current Oklahoma educators that this implies, what is also implied is that the comparison states have better social and economic outcomes (the justification given as the long-term benefits) than Oklahoma demonstrably tied to their higher spending. Where are the data for that? Unemployment rates lower? Voting rates higher? Less crime? If they prove the point, they would be used. Instead we’re given the familiar “more input, then a miracle happens” approach that has fouled up public policy for generations.

    I’m the first person to argue that Oklahoma gets far more than it deserves from its teachers for the money we devote to them and that they shouldn’t have to spend their own incomes on their classrooms. But are we really saying that we’ll get better outcomes from our current educators with more spending per student, that our current teachers either aren’t working 100% or are inferior to what we will have with increased spending? That’s not what we’re saying, we’re saying outcomes will be the same, just better rewarded? Fine, in “normal” times, but not when we’re facing years of “not normal.”

    An example: several years ago, the Board of Regents made the same argument, that is, we need to spend more to do and get better, to justify raising the salaries for college presidents at the state regional universities. IOW, we need better educational leadership so we need to draw better presidents to the state with competitive salaries. And then they turned around and gave the salaries to the existing presidents who had taken the jobs at the lower salaries and were presumably the negative that the Regents were advocating addressing. Why? Because those presidents, it turns out later, were really doing a really good job and deserved more money, too, just like teachers today. Again, absolutely no data to indicate the actual education quality in comparison with states that paid their regional presidents more, just the assumption that more money has to equal better, even if we’re going to use it to reinforce what we already have. Even assuming the validity of that argument, the problem now is that we had the spare cash to do that then. We don’t now, and, were the argument now to be made, many more of us would question the wisdom of paying people more than they’ve already accepted to do the same job they were already doing, just as we’re doing with 744.

    The biggest problem with ignoring our current economic situation, as well as downplaying the fact that Oklahoma has placed restrictions on itself for tax increases that the comparison states haven’t or have relaxed, is that, just as education supposedly years from now will produce a better state due to the reduced needs for all those competing social services, cutting funding now for all those competing social services may very easily undo everything the 744 advocates hope for with their measure. Less health care, less mental health care, fewer prison beds and supervisors for criminals, poorer transportation infrastructure, less public health–those things sound like draws for the economic development the 744 advocates claim will happen (again, a generation in the future) to you?

    And while we’re pointing out all the things ignored or assumed away in this piece, have we paid attention to the incredible underfunding of the state retirement systems that will either be an additional substantial drain on future spending or drastically undercut, meaning more pressure on the now-underfunded social services? Have we paid attention to the scientific studies indicating major problems ahead for states like Oklahoma when our water problems come full bore? Today the BBC is running a story on the expanding costs of dementia in the coming years. Where’s the money coming from for us to deal with that? Tax increases in Oklahoma? Please. Our policymakers won’t have “discretion.” They’ll be handcuffed, self-administered but handcuffed just the same.

    Again, before Oklahoma shot itself in both feet and other extremities with its tax cuts and limitation measures, I would likely have supported 744. I don’t think educators are paid enough or should have to use their own dollars for their efforts. I probably still would have supported it even with the tax changes when we were living in the bubble-induced boom times that 744 supporters still seem to believe we live in or will come back soon. In the future if/when we have recovered from the economic triage that we’re undergoing now, I will consider voting for it, especially if we were guaranteed the funding could not be diverted into administration. But right now, every dollar diverted to education will be cut from other state services, pure and simple. No amount of clapping our hands for Tinker Bell will change that.

    It’s hard to face reality, I know that, and it’s certainly common and logical to want to grab as much of what’s left away from everyone else when scarcities become the way of life. But tying ourselves to levels of spending for one policy area set by other states when you’ve already tied yourself up with tax restrictions is a guarantee that the social problems associated with the policy areas you’ll be shorting even more than they are shorted now will become even worse and short-circuit all the benefits 744 is supposed to provide. This is not an enlightened recipe for greater days ahead. It’s a dangerous recipe for greater failure.

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