OKLAHOMA -- A penny sales tax increase to help fund teacher pay raises and other areas of education will be on the ballot in Oklahoma this year, after the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled in favor of allowing the tax proposal to be put to vote.
The one-cent sales tax, known as Initiative Petition No. 403, would generate an estimated $615 million a year, according to a KFOR report.
The $615 million measure would provide:
- $424 million to increase teacher salaries by $5,000, while also giving districts funding for reforms to improve early-grade reading, graduation rates and college and career readiness
- $120 million to higher education to handle rising tuition and increase college completion rates
- $50 million for state grants for low-income and at risk children
- $20 million for workforce readiness and industry certifications for Oklahoma businesses
The measure was contested by a group, who claimed the sales tax violates the requirement that any proposed constitutional amendment pertain to only one subject, KFOR reported. However, in a 6-3 decision, the state's Supreme Court ruled the ballot measure was constitutional.
The issue will go to voters in November if 123, 725 signatures are collected.
“The court decision today is a great victory for the school children and the people of Oklahoma. It will allow the people to vote to solve our crisis in education. The court was absolutely right to not stand in the way of the right of the people to vote on this crucial issue. The reasoning of the majority was strong and correct,” OU President David Boren said in a statement.
Panama School District Superintendent Grant Ralls said the last time teachers received a raise in Oklahoma was in 2008. His school district has more than 700 students and about 50 teachers.
Liz Belcher is one of those teachers; she's been with the school for 10 years, teaching science. After earning her degree at Southeastern Oklahoma State University, she decided to stay in the state.
"This is where I grew up," she said. "It just really made more sense to me -- I didn't consider pay at that time. My heart, my passion, was in teaching."
But not everyone sticks around, like Belcher did.
"We're losing teachers to Arkansas and Texas, and all the surrounding states," Ralls said. "Teachers in Oklahoma -- way underpaid -- have been for a long time."
Right now, the starting salary for a new teacher in Oklahoma with a bachelor's degree is $31,600. If the one-cent sales tax is approved, every teacher in the state would see a $5,000 raise.
Belcher said while a raise would be great, she and her colleagues have discussed why some people wouldn't want to pay for the tax.
"A sales tax would generate additional funds," she said, "however we just kinda are leery of the promises big money whenever we all know that the oil and gas industry has suffered and we know families are hurting."