Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1991. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.
An idea has surfaced again recently that, since the state will not or cannot properly fund public education, local school districts should be allowed to go it alone and fix their own finances, perhaps somehow with the help of cities or counties. This is not an original idea. Since I’ve been observing or participating in civic life for the past several decades, this same idea, born of frustration, comes and goes. People care about their local schools because they care about their kids. Not only that, communities depend on the quality of their schools to attract new businesses and the new residents who are employed by them. So, when their local schools suffer, people want to solve the problem. Completely understandable.
But the idea of raising taxes locally and keeping all of it locally for operating our own school districts, without regard for the rest of the state, is a bad idea. It will quickly lead to school funding inequities throughout the state. The unit of government that courts look to for equitable school funding is the state. At a point, it is unconstitutional for kids in Muldrow or McAlester to get an education funded at an impermissibly lower level than kids who live in Tulsa. Oklahoma owes its children not only funding adequacy, but funding equity. With the current sorry state of school funding, it won’t take long to find ourselves in court.
The argument is made that local folks, if they want to tax themselves for their own schools, should be allowed to without the school funding formula deducting state money to partially equalize for the increased funding. The argument sounds good but ignores economic realities. Most local school funding comes from property taxes. Tulsa, for example, is filled with tall office buildings, factories, equipment and businesses that serve areas well beyond the boundaries of Tulsa Public Schools.
The people who work in these buildings housing regional, statewide or even international businesses often live outside where they work in communities that don’t have an abundance of these buildings, factories and equipment. A very small increase in Tulsa property taxes could generate a large return while residents of these smaller communities could burden themselves with unbearable property taxes without producing much revenue at all. That’s why the state funding formula equalizes state funding, and that’s why the theory that we should just all keep our own property tax money won’t work.
People who live in Tulsa, Oklahoma City or other property rich communities who want to promote this idea have a much better solution already. They should pay attention at election time or in their political party selection processes and elect people to go to the state Capitol who will both properly fund and equitably distribute education dollars for all Oklahoma kids. The school funding formula hasn’t been seriously adjusted since HB 1017 in 1990. Perhaps it needs to be adjusted.