For the second time in six years, a state question to infuse Oklahoma’s education system with hundreds of millions of dollars has failed. State Question 779 — a penny sales tax earmarked for education — did not top 50 percent this election day, despite early polls showing more than 60 percent support.
“I do have sad news for us. It would appear that we are going to be on the short side of the vote tonight,” said OU President David L. Boren Tuesday night at the SQ 779 watch party at the 21c Museum Hotel in Oklahoma City. “But I think it’s very important for us to all realize and celebrate tonight that we have started a conversation all across our state.”
Boren offered a concession speech for the initiative shortly before 8:30 p.m. He asked all educators in attendance to stand up and be recognized for their efforts to help Oklahoma children.
“We have a very serious problem when we continue to rank last among all the 50 states in the union on what we spend to educate our students,” Boren said. “We cannot allow this result to stand. We cannot be last in the nation on what we spend on our children and education.
“We cannot secure our future by ignorance.”
History repeats itself with SQ 779 failure
In 2010, education advocates placed State Question 744 on the ballot which would have added more than $800 million to education funding. That proposal received less than 20 percent of the vote after broad disapproval of how it would divert money from other key areas of government.
The SQ 779 failure, on the other hand, means an initiative that would have raised new revenue via a $0.01 addition to the state sales tax will not happen. An opposition campaign formed in the final month before election day, largely based on the message that not enough of the money would go to funding teacher raises.
Cities and municipal employee organizations opposed the sales tax, which would have made Oklahoma have the highest cumulative sales tax in the nation.
“I supported the measure because I saw it as the only option on the table to increase teacher pay,” said Rep. Emily Virgin (D-Norman) who supported the measure. “It was going to be a small step forward in our education funding problems, but this means that the Legislature has to step up and solve not only the teacher pay issue, but also the education funding issue as a whole.
“Judging by the past, I don’t have a lot of confidence that they will do that. We need to raise new revenue.”
Boren criticized opponents of the proposal for what he called misleading advertisements.
“It appears some people have some misgivings,” Boren said. “I have to be candid and say I feel (voters were) misled by some last-minute advertising.
“Those people will have to live with their consciences. It is not on my conscience or yours.”
He pivoted the #oklaed funding message forward to the 2017 legislative session.
“Our Legislature should not rest until they come up with a plan,” Boren said. “We’re not going to stop until we adequately invest in the next generation of Oklahomans. We are going to win the ultimate battle when it comes back to the state Legislature.”
Background on SQ 779
NonDoc broke the news in September 2015 about a coalition that was forming to circulate a petition that would ultimately become SQ 779. OU President David L. Boren said he was acting in his role as a private citizen to formulate the effort and advocate for it.
Boren and the Oklahoma chapter of the organization Stand For Children formed the Oklahoma’s Children — Our Future coalition and collected far more signatures than required in less time than was allotted, all for an amendment to the Oklahoma Constitution.
SQ 779 failure comes despite big-name support
Olympic gymnast and Norman resident Bart Conner helped Boren turn in signatures at the Oklahoma Secretary of State’s office, and he explained his support of the measure to NonDoc.
“I have some friends who have left the state to get teaching jobs in Texas because they can’t afford to live here,” Conner said in April as signatures were submitted to the Secretary of State’s office. “She’s a young lady, she just got her teaching degree. Her mother has been teaching 18 years in the state and doesn’t have an adequate salary even at that.
“These are really quality people. It’d sure be nice if they could be able to stay here as opposed to leaving the state to make a living.”
Backed by Gene Rainbolt, Dave Lopez, Toby Keith and 131 other influential stakeholders, the group’s petition became State Question 779 and put forth to voters a proposal for funding teacher pay raises, higher education and other education efforts in a year that saw the Legislature fail to do any of those things. (To read NonDoc’s pre-election SQ 779 primer, go here.)
Opposition developed late
Opposition to the proposal, however, grew as the 2016 cycle went on. Initially, NonDoc was peppered with whispers from influential Republicans who argued that, as written, the proposal would ultimately raise so much money for education that the Legislature could never cut it in the future in favor of other state needs. That line of argument was short-lived.
Next, the Oklahoma Council on Public Affairs rallied opposition to Boren’s proposal, despite simultaneously calling for a teacher pay raise and chastising Republican leadership for not making it a priority. OCPA’s Dave Bond wrote in opposition on NonDoc.
Eventually, a full coalition formed in October to oppose SQ 779. The group, OK Deserves Better, staked lawn signs across OKC medians and went on TV with advertisements that the Yes campaign called deceitful.
“It is now critical that we move forward to create a comprehensive plan that will ensure that our schools, teachers and our children receive the state funding they deserve while also protecting and diversifying the funding stream for other levels of government” said Bill Shewey, Enid mayor and chairman of the Oklahoma Deserves Better Campaign, in a statement Tuesday night.
(Editor’s Note: The Yes for SQ 779 campaign has been advertising on NonDoc since September.)