Where’s Our School Property Tax Refund?

Recently, the Naperville School District board in Naperville, IL, authorized returning $10 million to its taxpayers due to savings from the schools being closed for most of 2020. The question occurs: if a school district in Illinois can afford to return taxpayers’ money due to savings from buildings standing empty for nearly a year, why can’t some of the biggest school districts in Oklahoma do the same? Oklahoma City’s school district opened for in-person attendance for all of one week last November before telling everybody to stay home again. Otherwise, that district’s buildings stood empty for the bulk of the 2020 calendar year and nearly a full year, including the first months of 2021. Similar stories can be told about other districts in the state.

Schools across Oklahoma continued to pay teachers even after the schools effectively completely closed March of 2020 at the direction of the state’s board of education, and teachers’ summer break was effectively extended by more than two months. That wasn’t the fault of the teachers, and many teachers have been stressed by constant changes, inadequate training and district unpreparedness to support remote teaching, dealing with disinterested students, and administrators anxious that everyone get a passing grade when little to no learning has occurred. Still, all things considered, do teachers deserve a bonus (the OKC district is paying $1,500 per teacher) for dealing with the disruption this last year? Do taxpayers deserve no consideration whatsoever? What about parents, whose lives have been so unexpectedly and completely disrupted?

If West Virginia Can Pass Universal School Choice, Why Can’t We?

Recently, West Virginia’s legislature passed, and its governor approved, a comprehensive Education Savings Account law. Remember, this state was ground zero a few years ago when teachers in several states, including Oklahoma, left the schools during the school year, and protested for higher salaries. Like West Virginia, the Oklahoma legislature complied with the demands despite the fact that teachers generally do not vote in large numbers for the party currently in power.

West Virginia’s legislators appear to have grown the proverbial spine. They’ve stood up to the teacher unions (distinguished from teachers, who are not completely aligned with union leadership), who hate the idea that parents and children might have a chance to escape a soulless monopoly, and have passed comprehensive school choice.

Unlike West Virginia, Oklahoma’s legislature appears to remain almost completely cowed. The best school choice measure still alive in the current legislative session is a proposal to expand the state’s tax credit scholarship program. That’s a good thing, but given the similarity of circumstances between West Virginia and Oklahoma, why isn’t our legislature thinking bigger? West Virginia seems more like a state full of courageous, boisterous pioneers from the Rogers & Hammerstein movie than Oklahoma does right now, at least judging by the actions of the two states’ legislatures.

If West Virginia Can Prohibit Public Employee Strikes, Why Can’t We?

Speaking of striking teachers and Oklahoma’s meek legislature, why is there no reform to Oklahoma’s weak and meek anti-strike law being considered? When teachers had their “walk-out” a few years ago, it technically didn’t meet the definition of a “strike,” which is outlawed by the state, because the teachers were not striking against their school districts. In fact, school boards around the state voted to support the strike against the state and often did everything they could to accommodate it. The state’s anti-strike law apparently never contemplated such an eventuality.

You’d think this might be the ideal time to make sure such shenanigans never happened again. After all, nobody can make a credible argument that teachers have been overworked recently. What’s more, the 1889 Institute published a paper describing exactly what the legislature should do, including a model bill, and another one describing the problem in detail. Oh, and once again, West Virginia’s legislature has moseyed up to the plate, pointed to where the ball would go, and hit a home run, tightening their state law to prevent public employee strikes in the future.

Why Have We Taken So Long to Consolidate and Rationalize Election Dates?

The legislature should also consider why so many of the state’s school boards did the bidding of the teacher unions during the walk-out a few years ago. Whether there should or should not have been an across-the-board teacher pay raise is a separate debate, but one thing is clear: local school boards, creatures of the state and its legislature, did the bidding of teacher unions. Why? Local school boards did, and still do, have considerable discretion in determining how a district’s resources are allocated, including teacher pay. The across-the-board state pay-raise debate completely distracted from this important fact – that local boards bore the lion’s share of responsibility for teacher pay. Why did the teacher unions and school boards work so hard to protect and serve each other? Why were they so successful as the tail wagging the dog?

Might the answer to these last questions partly be that school boards are elected on obscure election dates in February and April when hardly anyone other than school employees are paying any attention? Might it be that school board members consider themselves more beholden to unions and school employees than to taxpayers? Is it not the case that with such low turnouts in these elections, unions, which are not subject to open meetings and are not required to offer representation to taxpayers, are effectively hiring their own bosses?

Fortunately, the legislature has taken up this question, in the form of Senate Bill 962, which changes school board election dates to November. Perhaps this bill portends good things for the future. It’s been a long time coming, but give credit where it’s due.

Why Is Oklahoma’s Legislature So Timid?

Still, the question remains, why, for so many, is a term-limited office so important that they often cow in the face of the least opposition to bold reform? Perhaps some of the fault lies in not pushing our lawmakers to enact bold systemic reforms to make government more responsive to us all.

Byron Schlomach is Director of the 1889 Institute and can be reached at [email protected].

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of 1889 Institute.