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OPINION | By Angela Graham
I have seen several news stories blaming Governor Fallin for placing State Question 801 on the November ballot. Given her 19 percent approval rating, it certainly is not difficult to find reasons to criticize the Governor, but I want to make sure to put the blame here where it is due: the State Legislature.
State Question 801 is a question that will be put to the voters to decide, yes or no. It requires a simple majority of the State’s voters to approve it, and if it does, it becomes an amendment to the Oklahoma Constitution. There are two common ways for a constitutional amendment or other legislation to get on the ballot. Most people are familiar these days with the petition method, where an interest group proposes a constitutional amendment or law and then collects signatures from voters. If enough voters sign on, the question is put on the ballot. This is how the recent questions on medical and recreational marijuana worked.
The other kind is when the State Legislature “refers” a constitutional amendment. In this method, if a majority of both houses passes a potential amendment, it must be placed on the ballot. The governor does not sign it, it goes straight to the people for a vote. That is the method used in 2016’s SQ 777 (the “right to farm” question) and here in 801.
So, what does State Question 801 do? Currently, local communities are permitted to collect a certain amount of property tax specifically to use for the operation and upkeep of school facilities. These funds are used to keep buildings and facilities in good condition and repair so that our children have safe, well maintained schools to go to. Currently, these local tax dollars cannot be used for anything beyond building expenses and repair.
State Question 801 would remove that restriction and allow communities to allocate those tax dollars for general school funds to do things like pay teachers and pay for textbooks. In the abstract, this sounds ok, but on closer examination, it would be major problem for our schools and our communities.
First, this is essentially rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. SQ 801 doesn’t actually add any more desperately needed funding for schools, it just forces local communities to choose between maintaining buildings and buying new textbooks or increasing teacher salaries. It is a cynical way for Republicans in the State Legislature to pass the blame for a lack of funding away from themselves and onto local officials.
Second, forcing schools to rely even more heavily on property taxes for general funding is a dangerous and unstable way of funding schools. Property tax revenues are not necessarily consistent or stable. Our schools need consistent, guaranteed funding so that they can plan long term to ensure that every student that passes through their doors gets a consistently great education. One child should not get a lower quality of education than another because property taxes took a dive for a couple years.
Finally, SQ 801 allows rich districts to get richer and poor districts to get poorer. School districts in areas with high property values, and thus high property tax revenue might, in some ways, benefit from this idea, but smaller districts in towns like Sand Springs or in rural communities with lower property tax revenue would suffer greatly. The quality of the education a child in Oklahoma receives should not depend on what neighborhood his parents live in. A child in Sand Springs should have the same educational opportunities as a child in midtown Tulsa, Bixby, Coweta, or Jenks.
This plan does nothing but increase inequality and make things harder on working class neighborhoods and schools. It just one more in a long line of bad decisions and failed leadership by the Republicans in the State Legislature that have chipped away at Public Education in Oklahoma for over a decade.
I believe we can, and must, do better. We must have new leadership in our legislature to move our state forward and ensure that every child in Oklahoma can get a great education. At many forums during the primary, I was asked if I would support this type of measure to shift property taxes away from upkeep and maintenance and to teacher salaries and textbooks. I was against it then, I am against it now, and as a State Representative, I will work every day to make sure the Legislature does its job and properly funds our schools instead of passing the buck. I am voting NO on SQ 801 and I hope you will do the same.
Angela Graham has two children and has called Sand Springs home for more than 20 years. She currently serves at Deborah Brown Community School. Before moving to Sand Springs in eighth grade, Angela grew up in a tight-knit, working-class family in Hutchinson, Kansas. From a young age, Angela learned to take care of others, including her family, and to have a strong work ethic, values that she has carried her entire life.