How Much Will You Pay for Better Schools?

By David Postic

Oklahoma Education

 


Oklahoma does not value education. Our spending shows it. Our outcomes show it. The number of teachers flocking to other states for better pay and better schools (or, in Oklahoma, leaving the profession entirely) show it. Each year, it seems like the Legislature keeps cutting and cutting and cutting the education budget as our classroom size keeps growing and growing and growing. Each year, we complain that the Legislature needs to get their act together, that it needs to better fund our schools. And each year, we are absolutely right. But it’s also easy to complain; it’s tougher to conceptualize. What would better education look like in Oklahoma? What would it cost?

The Problem

First things first: let’s go ahead and admit that we are not funding our schools like we should. Because we aren’t. Over the past 10 years, Common Education funding in Oklahoma has increased a mere $78,680,179, not adjusted for inflation ($2,348,041,255 in FY 2007 compared with $2,426,721,434 in FY 2017). That might sound like a lot of money, but just wait. Adjusting for inflation (because we can), annual spending on Common Ed has actually decreased to the tune of $389,722,187 (or ~14%). To put that in comparison, the amount of money the Legislature has cut from Common Ed (let’s not even get into the amount it’s cut from Higher Ed) could pay the entire Thunder payroll (pre-salary cap increase) for 5 years. It could pay the Red Sox payroll for 2 years. Or it could buy 121,550 of these super nice toilets to symbolize where the Legislature is throwing our education funding. It’s that much money.

But to be fair, a decrease in funding, by itself, is not necessarily bad. If we have fewer students, then per-pupil funding stays the same, right? Theoretically, yes, dear reader, you would be right. Only that’s not the case. Because we don’t have fewer students. We have more students. We have many more students. To be precise, as of April 2016, Oklahoma is home to 692,670 students, which is a 50,999 student (or ~8%) increase from 2007. (We don’t have enrollment totals for FY 2017, so the comparison of enrollment to funding is a bit off, but it’s close enough.) Funding has gone down; enrollment has gone up. Uh oh.

What this means is that our per-pupil, inflation-adjusted state funding for Common Ed has decreased by $1,761 over the last 10 years ($5,264 in 2007 to $3,503 in 2017), or about 33%. Keep in mind that state funding is only about 45% of total funding for public education; another 45% is local funding from property taxes, bonds, etc.; and 10% comes from the federal government (these numbers are slightly different in Oklahoma, but you get the idea). So at first blush, a decrease in spending may seem like it has a silver lining, what with all the tax money we don’t have to pay and whatnot (more on this later). But because a decrease in state funding means that local funding has to pick up the slack, you will end up paying about the same amount in taxes—and some people will even have to pay more—if we are to maintain constant levels of funding.

Of course, that’s the problem: we aren’t maintaining constant levels of funding to Common Ed. We are siphoning it off to pay for tax breaks to corporations and the wealthy. That’s a judgment call our state Legislature has made. And it’s wrong. Their judgment is wrong. They have decided that it is more politically expedient to sacrifice the potential of us students than to make the difficult call to halt tax breaks or—God forbid—raise taxes. They have decided that our students don’t deserve better. That our teachers don’t deserve better. That our state doesn’t deserve better. And they are absolutely 100% wrong.

The Solution

But I digress. I’m not just here to complain (although I’m definitely here to do that); I’m here to offer some solutions. Mostly, though, I want to quantify (in very brief and simple terms) what it will take to better our public schools. As a result, my focus is on revenue and does not cover qualitative improvements to Oklahoma education.

Let’s start with the obvious: Oklahoma hates taxes. Like, a lot. Like OU hates Texas. Like Donald Trump hates facts. Like everyone hates Ramsay Bolton. That much. As a result, we cut taxes a lot. How much do these tax breaks cost, you ask? Great question.

Exceedingly low tax rates for horizontal drilling will cost us in the neighborhood of $379 million in 2016 (and that’s just horizontal drilling tax breaks, not to mention other tax breaks for the oil and gas industry), while wind power credits are expected to cost another $133 million. I point out these two tax breaks for special treatment because—as every Oklahoma knows—oil and wind are two things that this state does not have in short supply. So it begs the question why we need such high tax breaks at all? Of course, a little incentive is fine. But our tax rate on horizontal drilling, for instance, is well below other states, and it’s not like oil companies are going to stop coming to Oklahoma—we have all the oils. As State Secretary of Finance Preston Doerflinger has said, a fiscally responsible policymaker “needs to seriously consider at what level government should incentivize something that is now standard practice.” Even walking back these two tax breaks a tiny bit could bring in tens of millions of dollars in new revenue. Phasing them out entirely (which, for horizontal drilling, would merely return to the ordinary 7% gross-production rate) would be half a billion dollars in the bank.

But these corporate tax breaks (and many more) pale in comparison to the lost revenue from cuts to the state income tax rate. Since the top rate (which applies to income above $7,200; the first $7,200 is taxed at rates between 1/2% to 4%) has been cut from 6.65% in 2004 to 5% in 2016, Oklahoma’s annual revenue loss is $1.022 billion. Annual. Billion. Is. What was that really big thing we had this year? A budget deficit? And how much was it? $1.3 billion? An extra billion dollars really would have helped with that. Too bad.

Now, tax cuts are nice. I like money. Money is good. Money buys me things like Netflix subscriptions and raisins and trips to Harry Potter World. But how much money did these tax cuts actually give us? And are they really even worth the cost? As of 2016, about 72% of the benefit from these cuts (about $735 million in 2016) goes to the wealthiest 20% of households (those making $246,000 a year). The wealthiest 5% of households ($568,000 a year) get 43% of the benefits. And the wealthiest 1% receive about the same benefit as the bottom 80%. The Oklahoma Policy Institute put this disparity in dollar terms:

The median Oklahoma household with annual income of $49,800 has seen its taxes reduced by $228, compared to a $15,519 cut for the average household in the top 1 percent (income of $476,600 and above). Households making less than $21,700 — the bottom 20 percent of households — have received an average of just $4 per year from cutting the top rate, since little or none of their income is taxed at the top tax brackets.

But wait, the inequity gets even bigger. When looking at the share of income paid in taxes, the Institute on Tax and Economic Policy has calculated that, in 2015, the poorest 20% of Oklahomans paid 10.5% of their income in state and local taxes compared to just 4.3% paid by the wealthiest 1%, or about 2.4 times as much. The middle 60% paid, on average, 9.3% of their income in taxes, 2.2 times as much as the top 1 percent. In policy terms, this is called a regressive tax system, as it places a larger burden on low-income households than on high-income households.

A billion dollars of lost revenue. Very little money in my pocket. And I pay more of my income than do wealthy people (who, coincidentally, benefit much more than I do from these tax breaks). Remind me why these tax cuts are good again? Oh yeah, because they foster growth and improve the economy. Only there is no evidence to support this. The nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities looked at 40 years of data and studies on state taxes and economic performance:

The large majority of these studies find that interstate differences in tax levels, including differences in personal income taxes, have little if any effect on relative rates of state economic growth. Of the 15 major studies published in academic journals since 2000 that examined the broad economic effect of state personal income tax levels, 11 found no significant effects and one of the others produced internally inconsistent results.

In fact, four of the five states that have enacted the largest personal income tax cuts in the last five years — Maine, Kansas, Ohio and Wisconsin — have experienced total job growth and personal income growth below the national average since the tax cuts took effect. A recent study by the Urban Institute and Brookings Institution found “neither tax revenues nor top marginal income tax rates bear any stable relation to economic growth rates across states and over time.” Yet Oklahoma continues to cut its tax rates despite the fact that we cannot afford to do so. And education has suffered because of it.

So how are we to proceed? What could we do with the money even if we had it? This is where qualitative analysis comes in, and to a certain extent a mere increase in funding won’t necessarily improve outcomes. And outcomes are, to a large degree, what are most important. But money helps. And it’s easy to imagine what would be possible with an extra billion or two in funds available for education.

With an extra billion dollars, we could give our 46,571 (FTE) teachers a $21,000 raise (or at least give them the $3,338 raise they need to meet the regional average). We could roll back the 30% cut to school lunch matching programs. We could replace the $38 million cut from support for public school activities. Or we could actually buy textbooks for students. We could do so much to address the problems we have and to make Oklahoma a better place for both students and teachers. With an extra billion dollars, we could spend $1,443 more per student than we currently do, which would move us from 47th in the nation for per-pupil spending all the way up to 33rd. Those are good things. Those are things we could do. If only we had the money…

Conclusion

And we do have the money, at least in theory. There was a time when we weren’t losing a billion dollars a year in income tax cuts; there was a time we weren’t giving half a billion dollars away to energy companies. And guess what? We survived. Not cutting taxes did not kill us. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t like paying taxes. And if the Legislature eliminated all of the tax cuts mentioned above, my taxes would go up. Yours would to. But the Legislature can craft policies that minimize the impact on Oklahoma citizens while still providing the revenue we as a state need to function properly. It’s possible.

The politics of crafting those solutions is what seems impossible. Oklahoma is not a place that believes in things raising taxes or making tough political decisions. Politicians need votes to stay in office, and it will be much more difficult to get those votes if they tell their constituents that taxes are going to go up. You might feel less inclined to vote for someone who tells you that. Hell, that would give me pause. But consider this: is there anything we do as a state that is more valuable than education? Is there anything that gives our state’s future more promise? Is there anything that you would say to a child to justify taking away their free or reduced lunch, their textbooks, their teachers, their classrooms, or the educational opportunities?

It will cost us all to make education better in Oklahoma. It will cost us a lot. But our schools will be better for it; our students will be better for it; our future will be better for it. How much am I willing to pay for better schools? As much as it takes.

—–

See this original post on Medium.

Dear Oklahomans Who Want to Leave…

By David Postic

Young Oklahomans Want to Leave


I love Oklahoma.

There is something about this state that holds a special place in my heart, aside from it being my home. Anyone who has looked out across the endless plains knows what I mean. The flatness of it all is intoxicating. But even more than the geography, it is the people that makes this place special. Oklahomans themselves are incredibly caring individuals, true salt-of-the-earth, born and bred on an ethic of hard work and on a faith so pervasive that it guides every part of their lives. Ours is a state with an enormous potential for diversity, prosperity, and opportunity.

But we have not lived up to that potential.

The actions of some of our governmental officers and representatives have shown that we, as a state, have either misplaced or misprioritized our values. And it’s something we need to fix. Rather than open our arms to diversity and tolerance, we have passed laws to discourage it. Rather than create opportunity, we have stolen it away from the most vulnerable in our society. Rather than look to the future — both in terms of our budget and our children — we have chosen instead to repeat the mistakes of the past. Whatever a properly functioning government looks like, this isn’t it.

This goes beyond the (embarrassing, in my opinion) events of the past few days (e.g., the continued assault on transgender rights, the admittedly unconstitutional abortion bill, the dishonest and inhumane decisions of the governor’s office vis-à-vis execution drugs). It goes to the heart of who we are as a people. Because although it is our elected officials who have caused these events to pass, it is we who elected them and continue to re-elect them. (I note here that there are more than a few courageous officials who have taken a stand against the rising tide of hatred and irresponsible government, and as a result they are not the subject of this complaint.) That’s on us. Authority without accountability breeds tyranny, and that is precisely what we are beginning to see.

But it is not only the particular representatives of our government that we need to hold accountable; we must hold accountable our system of government itself. Our system is based on politics and politicking, and as entertaining as it is to watch (and as necessary as it may be to some extent), it has become destructive. Politics — in my ideal vision of the concept — is simply a dream of (and a means to) establishing good government. At its heart, and what it most seeks to promote, is the body politic: the people. That is the basis of our democratic republic.

Today, however, politics has become divorced from the good of the people. Politics is no longer concerned with the body politic; it no longer cares. Not about you, not about me. It no longer cares about anything except winning and legacy and airtime and money. I am even convinced that politics writ large does not actually care about making the world a better place. Politics is no longer a solution; it is not a cure. It is a virus that spreads and infects everything and everyone it comes into contact with. Politics is no longer synonymous with statecraft or diplomacy or improvement. It is about maneuvering and brinkmanship and ultimatums. Politics today is more about grandstanding and fearmongering and fundraising and celebritizing than fixing and building and moving forward and helping people.

Why has this “new politics” become the mainstay? How did we get here? More than a little of the blame falls on us, the people. By and large, we do not want politicians to compromise — not on gun control, abortion, immigration, climate change, the budget, or anything else. All we want is for our guy to win, our side to win. Because for some reason, we have created a binary world where there is only right and wrong, winning and losing. There is no room for shades of gray, no room for discussion. And so it is that we as a society have come to view compromise as the antithesis of winning, something we wish to avoid at all costs. The media (and we, the consumers of media) have perpetuated this culture by buying into the hateful rhetoric and by accepting at face value the “facts” we are given. We do not verify, we do not seek the truth. We do not listen to people anymore. We hear them, and we speak to them, but we do not listen to them. There is no dialogue, and consequently there is no understanding. And that is a serious problem. Because if we ever want to work out our differences, we need to listen to each other. We need to understand. We need to care.

I am of the perhaps hopelessly optimistic opinion that our differences are not so great, political or otherwise, that we cannot overcome them. I do not believe that we are forever condemned to this destructive breed of “new politics.” I believe that Oklahoma — and the nation — can do better, and it starts with us. It starts with informed, passionate, caring people taking notice of the injustices and prejudices and wrongs that exist in our society and committing themselves to doing better, and electing representatives that are committed to doing better. We cannot fall victim to apathy, that old friend of oppression. We must do something.

It is no secret that making a better future will not be easy, and I am not going to try to make it seem easier than it is. Balancing budgets and funding schools and fixing bridges and providing health care and helping the poor and reducing violence will not be easy. It will be hard. It will be very, very, very, frustratingly, miserably hard. It will require sacrifice. It will demand our money, our comfort, our passions, our pride, our attention, our differences, and our egos. It will take everything we have.

Facing these large problems, and seeing discrimination and injustice perpetrated by the very government sworn to protect the liberties of its citizens, many young Oklahomans have given up. Oklahoma is beyond repair, they say. It’s a backwards state. They are embarrassed to be from here. They no longer see a future for this state and decide instead to leave it. The politics and politicians of Oklahoma are inspiring a mass exodus of young, talented individuals. This is more than just brain drain. It is passion drainand potential drain. And it is entirely unnecessary. This state has lost many of my friends, exasperated at the seemingly fixed order of things and the insurmountable obstacles ingrained into the very fabric of our government. I try to convince them to stay, to help fix things, but the politics and prejudices of Oklahoma are making my argument increasingly difficult.

But still, I must make it. Because the only hope for a brighter future in this state is a new generation of Oklahomans standing up for what is right and responsible when it comes to government. So to all young Oklahomans considering leaving this state: stay. The problems are big, but so are the possibilities. The path is not easy, but the reward will be worthwhile. Stay, and we can fight to bring this state back from the brink of self-destruction. Stay, and we can find solutions, make progress, and create a better Oklahoma, a better home for us all. We cannot do it without you. The people of this state deserve better. They don’t deserve irresponsible government and bigotry and the kind of politics that doesn’t care about them. Stay, and help give the people of this state the government they deserve. Isn’t that worth something?

Oklahoma is a special place, but it is in dire need of help. Its people are in dire need of help. So what can you do? You can stay. You can care about Oklahomans and about what happens to them. It will take time and patience — ungodly amounts of patience — but a better future is possible. We can make it happen if we work together.

Oklahoma is my home, and I plan to stay here and make it better. I hope you do too.

—–

See this original post on Medium.

A (Reasonably) Modest Proposal

With graduations happening left and right, I find myself having a lot of emotions.

On one hand, I feel old and sad and depressed that I’m still in school. I mean, I have two different diplomas. Why am I not a grown up yet? (Note: this is why.) On the other hand I feel thankful that I am no longer a pretentious, self-assured teenager. For example, I recently saw a kid post on Facebook, “I am SO ready to graduate!” That made me want to: 1) cry; 2) vomit; 3) murder him; and 4) quit Facebook. Because, seriously, that kid has no idea.

But then on yet another (third?) hand, I feel angry. And you should feel angry, too. Therefore, in the cathartic spirit of mutual anger, let us (only partially) put aside hard data for the next few paragraphs and focus a little on feelings.

The heartbreak of being graduated

Let’s start with why I’m angry: Education is suffering in Oklahoma. Suffering like Dallas Cowboys fans in the 4th quarter. It’s not suffering from a lack of attention, as evidenced by the myriad of statuses, links, and blog posts appearing daily on my Facebook timeline. Obviously, people don’t post stuff on Facebook if they don’t care about it.

(Humorous Facebook interlude.)

Yet in spite of all this attention, education continues to suffer. Here are the highlights: Oklahoma is 44th in the U.S. in per-pupil funding. We are 42nd in percentage of college graduates. We are 43rd in “Chance for Success”–whatever that means. The list goes on. If there’s an educational ranking, my state is probably near the bottom. Even teachers and school district superintendents think things are generally suck-ish.

The problem is made worse by inexplicable cuts to K-12 funding and a state superintendent who is probably about as well liked in Oklahoma as a certain U.S. President. Blaming budget cuts and education officials is easy and—let’s face it—appropriate. But that doesn’t answer the question everyone keeps asking: Why isn’t this problem being solved?

I think the answer is relatively simple: Because no one is solving it. Allow me to explain this arguably-sardonic observation with a theory I just made up–the General Theory of Problem Solving.

The Theory claims that there are three types of people necessary to solve any problem: (1) those who know about the solutions; (2) those who care about solving the problem; and (3) those who can actually do something about it. In order to fix our education problem, for instance, we need those three groups to overlap.

My General Theory of Problem Solving, beautifully represented by this Paint-generated Venn diagram.
My General Theory of Problem Solving, beautifully represented by this Paint-generated Venn diagram.

Now here’s the kicker: those groups are not all equal in composition or authority. So we end up with one group of people (parents and teachers, mostly) caring about the problem; another group knowing about the solution (social scientists and some educators); and another group actually able to implement the solution (legislators). But very few people have all three qualities. Recognizing that the only people who can take action in this case–legislators–are also the smallest group of the three, we find our bottleneck.

Therefore, it seems that the perfect solution to our educational woes is to teach our legislators about education policy so they will recognize the errors of their ways. Problem solved!

Rich men laughing

Now that we’ve had a good laugh, let’s get real: we have about as good a chance of persuading our legislators as this guy does of ever having a good hair day. Perhaps we should take a step back… We can’t influence the legislators of today, but maybe we can influence the legislators of tomorrow. Ride this crazy train with me for a moment.

We teach our students history, even well into college. We teach them math and science (HuffingtonPost says we suck and those too, by the way) and a host of other classes because we deem those “important” for the common citizen to know. But why don’t we teach them about education? Education impacts politics, socioeconomics, even life expectancy. It dramatically affects everyone and everything. Education is basically the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show of subjects. (Note: if you get anything out of this post, I want it to be that last sentence.)

(While we’re on this topic, I would argue that biology is the geography bee of subjects [we’re going meta here], while trigonometry is the amateur competitive eating of subjects. This probably warrants a whole separate blog post.)

So here’s my ideal solution: We require all students to take education classes. Simple as that. Then some day, those students will lose a bit of their sanity and decide to run for office (see: Rob Ford). Now imagine how much differently our legislators would value education if they had studied it, if they knew about it, if they could be intellectual and passionate about it.

There are a variety of roadblocks and pitfalls that come with this solution, of course, but I’m going to ignore them for the sake of brevity. Also it’s my article, so I can do what I want. Bottom line: If 100% of our students learn about education, then 100% of our future lawmakers will know about education. That sounds like a surefire plan I can get behind.

Mission Accomplished

Even though I can rest easier knowing that my groundbreaking Theory has solved a complex social problem, I’m still upset about graduation season. For one thing, it means kids are going to be out of school for three months, galavanting around town and annoying everyone (i.e., me) with their loud music and sideways hats. But more importantly, high schoolers are the epitome of unbridled optimism, and as a college graduate I am trained to be deeply suspicious of that sort of person.

But–and this is a big but–maybe they’re onto something. Maybe we can allow ourselves to be optimistic about the future, but only if we do something about it right now. I, for one, am going to do my part and learn: About the problems, about the solutions, and about what I can do to fix things. I think that’s at least a good place to start. And it’s a good way to keep from crying while listening to Vitamin C’s “Graduation” on repeat.

Youths Gif