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OU president pushes tax hike for education

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OKLAHOMA CITY -- University of Oklahoma President David Boren is asking for your generosity to raise $615 million for the state's education system, which many say is in "crisis."

"We're a generous people," Boren said Wednesday. "We reach out to help the people who need it most. Right now, our children cry out for our help."

Boren spoke as he unveiled his plan to give teachers a raise, drive down tuition costs, and provide opportunities for low-income and at-risk children.

The cost to Oklahomans would be an extra one percent sales tax -- a penny on every dollar spent.

"We are truly facing a crisis in public education right now with the teacher shortage," said Amber England, the Executive Director of Stand for Children Oklahoma, which supports and helped craft the ballot proposal. "Oklahomans want something done about it."

England, along with Boren and others, are spearheading a petition drive to get the sales tax increase on the ballot in Nov. 2016.  They will need to collect 123,725 signatures in the next three months or so.

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 money is constitutionally protected, and no funding would be allowed to go to superintendent salaries.

"I think, historically, Oklahomans have been very supportive of investing in public education, so long as you tell them exactly how you spend the money," England said. "I think it's a well-put-together package that addresses all the pressing issues that our schools are facing right now with a dedicated revenue source."

But some Oklahomans are skeptical of a tax increase, particularly when times are hard for the oil and gas industry.

"I wouldn't want to pay any more in taxes, it's not that I don't want to help education," said Marshall Gamblin. "I don't think we're using the money where we're supposed to be using it."

Even Michael Brock, whose wife is a teacher, says a tax increase is a tough decision.

"I don't want to pay more in taxes," he said, "but a small increase probably wouldn't hurt."

According to the Tax Foundation, Oklahomans already pay 8.77% on average in combined state and local sales taxes. That's the sixth-highest rate in the country.

But educators say the cost will be worth it.

"It's the best plan I've seen," said Shawn Hine, the Executive Director of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association. "None of us like to pay more in taxes. Our people in Oklahoma have proved time and time again they believe in schools."

Hine says voters pass local bond issues regularly, and while he won't say his group is endorsing the tax hike, he likes that the plan dedicates money to teacher pay raises.

"We have a teacher crisis," he said. "We started the year with more than a thousand teachers short. We need to have 1,000 emergency certificates this year. We have to have action and it has to come soon."