On November 2nd, Oklahomans will be asked to decide the fate of State Question 744, one of the more controversial ballot initiatives to appear in recent years. SQ 744 is a proposed constitutional amendment addressing common education spending (pre K – 12th grade). The amendment would repeal a section of the Oklahoma Constitution that requires the legislature to spend $42.00 per student and would replace it with an amount equal to the average spent by surrounding states. It requires the money to be spent on day-to-day school operations and specifically prohibits it from being used to pay debt or on capital projects. Also, the amendment doesn’t raise taxes or provide a funding mechanism to pay for the increased spending. Basically, it’s a requirement that the legislature increase common education spending to the average amount spent by surrounding states, without a specified means to pay for it.
Supporters of SQ 744 state that Oklahoma education is in desperate need of more funding. They point out that the state spends the least per student of any in the region and ranks 49th in the nation in common education spending. SQ 744 supporters state that a neighboring state, Arkansas, spends 30% more per student than Oklahoma, which they say has led to a 35% increase in test scores. On the “Yes on 744” website, Oklahoma schools are characterized as overcrowded places where student use outdated equipment and textbooks, and the group states that the passage of SQ 744 will provide newer technology, smaller classrooms, and better-trained teachers, which would lead to better-educated students.
Opponents point out that the amendment would require the state to spend a billion more dollars on education. Without raising taxes, the amendment would have to a funded through a reallocation of funds from other areas of the state budget. They claim that a reallocation of that magnitude would require a 20% cut from each agency. Such cuts would result in the closure of prisons, early release of prisoners, increased tuition costs, loss of state jobs and programs, and loss of matching federal grant money. If SQ 744 were to be paid through a tax increase, income tax would have to rise by 34% or sales taxes by 38%. Either choice, opponents believe, would have severe economic and social consequences for the state.
The Yes on 744 Coalition is correct on several counts. Oklahoma education is in need of additional funding; the state does indeed rank 46th nationally in per-student spending and 48th for average teacher salary. However, those rankings do not translate to poor student performance; data from 2006 shows a high school graduation rank of 23rd nationally, with state academic standards being rated the 10th highest in the nation. Obviously, our schools are doing something right. The Yes on 744 Coalition fails to point this out.
Opponents to SQ 744 are also correct in their assessment of the social and economic effects. If 744 were to pass, food safety, nursing home, child welfare, and environmental inspectors will be fired. Prisons will close, releasing prisoners onto the streets. Senior care, mental health, and substance abuse treatment programs will close, abandoning those who need their help.
So, we what need to ask ourselves is this: are our schools in such need of additional funding that it’s worth bankrupting every other function of state government? My answer is no. Education deserves more money, but robbing every other state agency to get it is not the way.