Cockamamie? You Don’t Know Cockamamie!

Cavanal Mountain, World’s highest hill above Poteau, OK; ID’d by Sue Haskins.

I enjoyed an informative conversation this week with two new friends who are active in Oklahoma City civic affairs.  Some of their stories remind me how fortunate we Tulsans are to be the home of the Oklahoma Policy Institute, not the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, and the home of the Tulsa World, not the Daily Oklahoman (or the “Daily Disappointment” as aptly named by Frosty Troy).  Therefore, it pains me only slightly to use this post partly to dig my friends at the World’s editorial board for their recent characterization of our state’s education funding formula as “cockamamie”, a word best defined by Joe “Malarkey” Biden or some other Geezer.

They were reacting to Mayor G. T. Bynum’s State of the City speech to the Metropolitan Tulsa Chamber of Commerce.  Here are the relevant excerpts:

The quality of our educational system in Tulsa is the greatest economic development challenge we face today. It is the greatest quality of life challenge we face today. It is the greatest criminal justice challenge we face today. And I believe with every ounce of my being that if Tulsans could fix it, we would.  But we can’t. Right now, we can pass property-tax initiatives to build football stadiums and fix up buildings and buy iPads for kids – but if we pass a property tax to pay our teachers the kind of wage that will keep them from fleeing to Arkansas or Texas, the state will reduce our allocation by an equivalent amount. They will punish us for trying to help.  This upcoming legislative session, we are going to try to change the dynamic. We’re going to quit waiting for someone else to save us, and try to empower Tulsans to take our destiny into our own hands.  I am so thankful this is part of the Tulsa Regional Chamber’s One Voice agenda, but that is not enough. We need every family, every business owner, every employee, every voter to let your legislators know WE WANT TO HELP. We need their permission to help. I believe if they will let us, we can address this challenge in the same way we’ve addressed those that came before us.

The World’s editorial applauded Bynum’s other initiatives and concluded with this:

We’re enthusiastic about the six initiatives announced by Mayor G.T. Bynum at his State of the City address Thursday. But we’re particularly enthused about his effort to help fund Tulsa Public Schools.  Bynum’s proposals includeda concerted effort to lobby the Legislature to allow municipal property tax increases to fund public school operating expenses without any penalty to state funding.  Tulsa cannot not progress as a city unless it has a public school system that will attract young families. The first, essential step in that direction is adequate funding of education, which the Legislature has repeatedly failed to supply.But state law essentially prevents Tulsans from helping their schools. If the city gives one dollar of operating revenue to the school system, the state would penalize the district almost the same amount in state aid. It’s a cockamamie system that keeps urban schools from improving and has to be changed.  All six initiatives Bynum outlined Thursday show vision and practical wisdom, but his school effort is especially essential to our city’s future, and one deserving the support of all Tulsans.

Here is the One Voice Agenda item referred to by Mayor Bynum:

Funding of Education: Provide municipalities with the ability to supplement state education funding and target the unique priorities of their community. Voters in local communities should be able to increase their investment in their public schools without sacrificing or impacting their state funding. Meanwhile, the state aid formula should continue its role ensuring an adequate base funding level for all schools, with additional increases in state funding directed through that formula.  

Reacting to the World’s editorial I sent this Letter to the Editor:

The World’s Editorial reaction to Mayor Bynum’s proposal to allow local communities to vote property tax increases to fund teacher pay raises is disappointing in its uninformed dismissal of the state’s effort to equalize funding for Oklahoma students as “a cockamamie system that keeps urban schools from improving and has to be changed.”   Likely the most important reform of public education finance in our country’s history has been the implementation of state aid equalization formulas to offset the huge disparity among school districts when financing primarily relied on local property taxes.  The disparity was not caused by differences in local effort, but rather by huge differences in local property wealth to the detriment of students from poor communities. 

Those disparities remain.  Just within Tulsa County a taxpayer in districts with lower valuations per student, namely Sperry, Liberty, Collinsville, Glenpool and Sand Springs, would have to pay more than twice the amount paid by a taxpayer in the Tulsa, Bixby or Jenks districts to fund the same teacher pay raise.  Statewide the disparities are even greater meaning some Oklahomans would have to pay more than forty dollars for every dollar paid by others to keep pace. 

Perhaps Oklahoma’s state aid formula can be tweaked to permit more local funding, particularly to address teacher compensation in urban areas with higher costs of living, but care must be taken so that students in Oklahoma districts with low property wealth are not unduly penalized.  The real “cockamamie system” in Oklahoma that needs to be addressed is not its statutory commitment to assure equal educational opportunity for all Oklahoma students, but rather the constitutional provision requiring a supermajority to raise revenue that has empowered a backward minority in our legislature to block the will of the majority.

We’ll see if it gets published.  As my fellow Tulsans strive to enact legislation that will allow discretionary local funding of schools outside of the state aid equalization formula I intend to be a voice reminding them why there are equalization formulas to begin with.  The most famous school funding equalization litigation came out of Texas, beginning with the 1973 federal case San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriquez and continuing with the 1989 state case Edgewood v. Kirby .  According to facts from the Edgewood case about Texas school finance, at that time there was a 700 to 1 ratio between the value of taxable property in wealthiest and poorest districts and district spending per student varied from $2,112 to $19,333.  As stated in the Edgewood decision:

There are glaring disparities in the abilities of the various school districts to raise revenues from property taxes because taxable property wealth varies greatly from district to district.   The wealthiest district has over $14,000,000 of property wealth per student, while the poorest has approximately $20,000;  this disparity reflects a 700 to 1 ratio.   The 300,000 students in the lowest-wealth schools have less than 3% of the state’s property wealth to support their education while the 300,000 students in the highest- wealth schools have over 25% of the state’s property wealth;  thus the 300,000 students in the wealthiest districts have more than eight times the property value to support their education as the 300,000 students in the poorest districts.   The average property wealth in the 100 wealthiest districts is more than twenty times greater than the average property wealth in the 100 poorest districts.   Edgewood I.S.D. has $38,854 in property wealth per student;  Alamo Heights I.S.D., in the same county, has $570,109 in property wealth per student.

In Rodriquez the U. S. Supreme Court held that education is not a right protected by the U. S. Constitution, rather it is a function undertaken by the states.  Therefore, efforts to achieve fair funding of education must be worked out state by state.  The Edgewood case was part of the Texas effort to achieve more fairness in financing its schools and it was successful with the Texas Supreme Court agreeing that the right to an education promised to Texas children was being violated by the huge disparities in school funding.  I believe Texas school finance today remains under the active review of its courts.

My son and I were plaintiffs in the original Oklahoma school funding equity lawsuit, Fair School Finance Council v State of Oklahoma .  Decided in 1989 the Oklahoma Supreme Court declined to find Oklahoma’s system unconstitutional, holding instead that the issues raised were matters to be worked out through the legislative process.  Because the Court did not find that Oklahoma’s school finance system violated the state’s constitution, the decision does not cite the huge disparities in property tax wealth among Oklahoma school districts like the Texas case did.  However, you can view these disparities for yourself by looking at school district profiles here:

This is the top part of the profile for Tulsa Public Schools:

In the first section on “Socioeconomic Data” you see that its property valuation per student (ADM, being average daily membership) is over $60,000, compared to the statewide average of almost $50,000 per student.  The Tulsa Public Schools may serve many students from low income families but the district is not poor by Oklahoma standards.  Contrast that with the other Tulsa County and a sampling of state school districts shown in this table.

What this chart shows us, simply stated, is that if the good citizens of the Maryetta school district in Adair County want to increase pay for their teachers with a new local property tax, like Mayor Bynum, the World and Tulsa Chamber want the opportunity to do, they will have to raise their property taxes more than 40 times as much as would the citizens of Burlington school district in Alfalfa County to fund the same pay raise.

I applaud Mayor Bynum, the Tulsa Chamber and the editorial board of the World for stepping up boldly to advocate for enhanced funding for our community’s schools.  At the same time, I encourage them to be informed about the large disparities in property wealth that exist among school districts, rural and urban, and the reasons we have a state aid formula that works to level the playing field among school districts so that all students have the opportunity for an adequate education.   Whatever empowerment of local communities they advocate needs to be crafted with the understanding that other communities have the same desire to help their schools, but don’t have the same local wealth.

As always lunch is on me for the first to ID the photo location.

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