Sales Tax Proposal Would Help Schools, But Experts Say It Comes At A Cost

Jan 21, 2016


Daryl Gandy walks through the halls of Ulysses S. Grant High School in south Oklahoma City.

“We have 1,800 kids in this school that was built for 1,250,” Gandy said. “We have about 30 teachers, myself included, that don’t have a classroom.”

As Gandy strolls through the school cafeteria, he points outside to a white, nondescript building with a long metal ramp.

“These are our portables,” Gandy said. “We call it the trailer park. We have about 10 classrooms out here. This helps some of our overcrowding situation but it definitely didn’t fix it.”

Gandy started teaching government here five years ago and it was his first teaching job after finishing college. Since that time, the state hasn’t approved raises for educators and Oklahoma teacher pay has fallen to among the lowest in the country.

“Since I’m single and I don’t have children, I can afford to teach here. But I couldn’t raise a family on this salary. At all. But as of right now, I’m OK. That’s not the same for the vast majority of teachers. Since most teachers are married and have kids, you can’t raise a family on this salary,” Gandy said.

A one-cent sales tax proposal, championed by University of Oklahoma president David Boren, would fund a $5,000 raise for teachers and send an estimated $600 million into the education system each year.

Oklahoma Policy Institute executive director David Blatt said the increase would make Oklahoma salaries much more competitive with neighboring states.

“It would provide the biggest percentage increase for younger teachers and they’re the ones who are leaving the profession most rapidly,” Blatt said. “Somebody making $33,000 a year, $38,000 would represent a significant change.”

Blatt said tax credits, income tax cuts and off-the-top spending have long played a role in Oklahoma’s low levels of education funding, and now low oil prices have led the state into a so-called revenue failure. Cuts are on the way.  Meanwhile, teachers are taking jobs in other states and school districts are scrambling to fill vacancies.

“We’re going to continue to struggle with school funding issues even if this measure does pass, but boosting teacher pay really is in our opinion the single most effective thing you could do to address this tremendous teacher shortage crisis that the state is facing,” Blatt said.

Oklahoma City University economist Russell Evans said a sales tax is easily administered and is generally understood by voters. It’s relatively predictable as a long-term funding source, but it’s volatile in the short-term and is subject to dips during recessions.

And Evans said a sales tax is regressive in nature. It hurts the poor more than the rich.

“if you isolated one component of a general sales tax, just look at a sales tax on groceries, what you would find is that higher income families have a higher grocery bill and therefore a higher sales tax bill,” Evans said. “But the sales tax that they pay as a share of their income is lower than it would be for a lower income household.”

Evans said there are other disadvantages. Local sales taxes are a way cities and towns fund themselves, so a statewide levy would cut into their ability to pass local tax initiatives.

“It gets incrementally, and perhaps even exponentially, harder to do so as your tax burden baseline is increased,” Evans said.

David Blatt from the Oklahoma Policy Institute said he understands why sales tax proponents believe they have to bypass the legislature and take an initiative petition to the people.

“You never get exactly what you would hope for in politics, and this proposal is not exactly the one that we would have drafted, but something has to be done and this is what is currently on the table,” Blatt said.

Daryl Gandy, the government teacher at Grant High School, wants to see more funding for the state’s education system. But he would vote ‘no’ on the sales tax.

“I know, ‘any port in a storm’ is what they say. Things are really stormy out there financially. Anything could look like a good fix, but I just don’t think this is a good fix,” Gandy said.

To Gandy, the sales tax would push the financial burden onto Oklahoma’s poorest taxpayers.

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