Penny Sales Tax For Education Seeks To Keep Teachers In State

Jan 20, 2016

Jason McMullen taught in Oklahoma for 12 years before he finally decided to move to Arkansas. When he left, his salary was $41,000. His wife was a teacher too, and earned less.  

"It just got to a point where it’s hard to buy a house," McMullen said. "It’s hard to pay bills, it’s hard to raise kids."

After all their bills were paid each month, McMullen says he and his wife had about $250 left for groceries and other living expenses.

"I just could not financially afford to stay any longer," McMullen said.

After just four years in Arkansas, he and his wife now make $30,000 more.

He thinks the reason Arkansas pays more is because their taxes are higher.

"Whereas, the difference in Oklahoma is tax cut, tax cut, tax cut," McMullen said. 

McMullen is one of hundreds that have left the state for better pay elsewhere. This mass exodus of teachers has left Oklahoma schools reeling, desperate for anyone to fill their place.

Jason McMullen, born and raised in Oklahoma, now teaches in Springdale, Arkansas.
Credit Emily Wendler / Oklahoma Public Media Exchange

Teachers rallied for better pay, but a series of budget crises made that unlikely.

Then a few months ago, David Boren, the president of the University of Oklahoma, announced a plan to raise sales taxes in order to fund education. 

Amber England is Boren’s right hand man in this effort, and says finding a way to fund education is imperative.

"We’re 48th in teacher pay, we’re 49th in overall education funding. Our student performance isn’t great," England said. "And I don’t think if you look at all those statistics you can say they’re not related."

The proposal is to raise the sales tax one cent, which could collect about $615 million each year. That money would go in to an education improvement fund and would be divided up amongst Higher Ed, Career Tech, state school districts, and $5,000 dollar pay raises for teachers.

Beginning teacher pay would go from $31,600 to $36,600. England hopes this raise will keep teachers in the state.

“We obviously know that $5,000 isn’t all they need. It is a start," England said. "But it is an important step to improving teaching conditions in this state”

England also thinks the funds will make college more affordable, and will help schools improve learning outcomes.

"These are things that the legislature have said is a priority, but we need to go ahead and fund that. And this ballot measure would do that," England said.

Once the Secretary of State gives them the go-ahead, Boren and his group will circulate a petition. They’ll need about 123,000 signatures to get it on the November ballot—and to a vote of the people.

Not everyone is in favor of it though. A conservative think tank recently challenged the petition with the concern that Oklahoma’s sales tax would be one of the highest in the nation –at about 9 and a half percent—if this passes.

Another concern is that it will affect low-income people more than anyone else. Tasha Chenier, a manager at a convenient store, says she’s worried about her customers.

“There’s so many times where we get people in here, where I’ll throw in a couple dollars, because their counting their pennies so much, and don’t have enough and they’ve got two kids and need a gallon of milk," Chenier said.

It’s estimated that the increased sales tax could cost someone between $70 and $250 per year.

Jason McMullen, the teacher in Arkansas, thinks it’s a good idea, but is worried about it passing.

“If you try to get a tax raise, it’s like you said the big four letter word to a lot of people, because they don’t want to have to pay any more taxes," McMullen said. "They already feel like they’re paying too much."

He said something needs to happen soon though, or else things will just get worse.