Saturday, November 05, 2016

Pro-779 ad makes false, blatantly misleading claims

This week, the group Oklahoma’s Children, Our Future unveiled an ad supporting State Question 779, the permanent, 1% statewide sales tax on the Nov. 8 ballot in Oklahoma.

Together, the ad and an accompanying post on the group’s website make four claims, three of which are most certainly false, while the fourth is blatantly misleading.

Claim #1: 60% of the 779 tax money “will go toward teachers.”

The Facts: It’s shocking that 779’s supporters are trying to present as a positive that 40% of the money from 779’s sales tax increase – 40 cents of every dollar taken from working Oklahomans – would not be spent on teachers.

The reality, though, is even worse: only 39% – not 60%, as the pro-779 ad suggests – of the 779 tax money would be required to go to teacher salaries or benefits. It’s possible, though not guaranteed, this number could ultimately be higher, but there is nothing in 779’s fine print requiring more than 39% of the 779 tax money to go to teacher compensation.

Let’s clarify how we calculated 39%. Proponents of 779 say the measure will bring in $615 million in new tax money each year, via 779’s sales tax increase on working Oklahomans. According to the National Education Assoc. and the Oklahoma State Dept. of Education, there are approx. 42,027 public school classroom teachers in Oklahoma. To provide each with a $5,000 salary increase, factoring in a multiplier of .17 for FICA and other employment-related costs, would cost $245 million.

A simple division calculation reveals that the cost of providing the $5,000 teacher salary boost – $245 million – is 39% of the total 779 is projected to generate – $615 million.

245 / 615 = 39%

After the teacher pay raise dollars are taken out, this particular pot of 779 money – one of five different pots detailed in 779’s fine print – would have $123.9 million remaining.

In 779’s fine print, the only requirement for this $123.9 million is that it be spent to “otherwise address and prevent teacher and certified instructional staff shortages in the manner most suited to local district circumstances and needs.”

That’s it. No requirement to hire more teachers. No requirement to spend the money on teacher salaries, benefits or other compensation.

Experience suggests that, while some local school district officials would use these extra funds to hire more teachers or further increase teacher compensation, others would not.

Verdict: The claim by Oklahoma’s Children, Our Future is false. Only 39% of the 779 tax money is required to go to teacher compensation.

Claim #2: “Every single penny” of the 779 tax money has annual audit requirements built in.

The Facts: In its descriptions of the five different pots of 779 tax money, 779’s fine print only includes audit requirements for two of the pots – the pot from which the teacher pay raise funds will be drawn, and the pot designated for “programs, opportunities, or reforms” to improve reading, boost high school graduation rates, and “increase college and career readiness.”

The other three pots – the $118.3 million lump sum for Higher Education, the $19.9 million lump sum for Career Tech, and the $49.2 million lump sum for the State Dept. of Education – feature no audit requirements whatsoever.

After everything is tabulated, 70% of the 779 tax money will include audit requirements, while 30% will not.

Verdict: The claim by Oklahoma’s Children, Our Future is false. Only 70% of the 779 tax money includes audit requirements.

Claim #3: The 779 tax money cannot be spent on “administrative overhead.”

The Facts: From 779’s fine print:

“None of these monies distributed from the (779 fund) to common school districts may be used to add superintendent positions or increase superintendents’ salaries.”

That’s it. No restrictions on adding positions or increasing salaries for assistant superintendents, administrative assistants, principals, vice-principals, assistant principals, curriculum directors, IT support staff, coaches, program directors, communications officers, chiefs of staff, athletic directors, etc.

Verdict: The claim by Oklahoma’s Children, Our Future is false. Portions of the 779 tax money may be spent on administrative overhead.

Claim #4: Since 779 would be locked into the Oklahoma Constitution, the 779 tax money would be kept out of “the meddling hands of politicians.”

The Facts: Disparaging politicians and their “meddling hands” is a time-honored American tradition, practiced with great wit by Mark Twain, Will Rogers and other luminaries.

In this case, however, it’s merely a ploy to distract voters away from the fact that 779 will: (a) require all Oklahomans, regardless of income, to pay the highest permanent sales tax burden in the nation, and (b) provide state government bureaucrats and school administrators with the constitutional protection to spend up to 60% of the 779 tax money on stuff other than teacher compensation.

Ultimately, whether 779 is approved or rejected on the ballot may come down to Oklahoma voters determining which group they trust the most … or, perhaps, distrust the least: publicly-elected politicians at the state Capitol, or un-elected state government bureaucrats and school administrators.

For many Oklahoma voters, that may be a tough call. Either way, the claim by Oklahoma’s Children, Our Future is blatantly misleading.


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