Public Education and Lessons Learned from a Supermajority State

On November 6, Florida voters will decide the fate of a constitutional amendment that would require a supermajority vote (two-thirds) of the Legislature to increase a state tax or fee, institute a new state tax or fee or eliminate a tax exemption or credit. This type of threshold makes it harder to raise revenue, as we’ve seen in other states that require a supermajority vote, which can lead to cuts in critical programs and services, like public education. A prime example of the harmful effects of a supermajority requirement can be seen in Oklahoma’s education system.

In 1992, Oklahoma enacted a similar requirement (three-quarters vote) for tax increases. Until March 2018, the state had not once reached that threshold.  This has largely impacted public education in Oklahoma. According to the nonpartisan OK Policy Institute, the state’s public education funding decreased by nearly $180 million over the past decade, while K-12 enrollment has grown by over 50,000 students during that same time period. Investment would have to increase by over $1.1 billion, noted the Institute, to bring Oklahoma in line with the current national average for per pupil spending.

Oklahoma’s teachers went a decade without a single salary increase. This forced many teachers to quit their jobs and move out of the state, creating an overall shortage of educators, overcrowded classrooms and overworked teachers. As a result, educators staged a statewide walk-out on April 2.  The protest lasted for nine days with the goal of bringing a salary increase for teachers and more funding for schools. Although the state Legislature had recently attempted to provide some relief by granting educators a $6,000 raise, this barely made a significant dent, as it came on the heels of years of cuts. Alice Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association, tweeted that “While the half billion dollar investment represented major progress, it “will not undo a decade of neglect.”

Whether or not Florida will end up in the same situation as Oklahoma is impossible to predict; many of the conditions leading up to the teacher walkout, however, are already present in Florida. For instance, per pupil funding is far below the pre-recession level when accounting for inflation. The FY 2018-19 budget would’ve had to increase funding by more than $900 per student to match the amount appropriated in FY 2007-08. Our state also ranks near the bottom of the list when it comes to attracting and training teachers. Add to that the potential for further, deep cuts if Florida approves the supermajority requirement, which should certainly be cause for concern. K-12 education is not the only service area that took a hit in Oklahoma.  Higher education, health care and other public services experienced deep cuts as lawmakers struggled to raise revenue.

As the Sunshine State considers a supermajority requirement, it’s worth noting that Florida’s rankings on key benchmarks associated with residents’ health and well-being are already very low. For example, Florida ranks 50th for public services investment, 40th for overall child welfare and 46th for rate of residents with health insurance. To improve on those rankings, Florida would have to make greater economic investments in those aforementioned programs, which would often require raising revenue. With an imposed two-third threshold and a highly polarized state Legislature, it would be improbable, if not impossible, to support and improve these programs and services. Florida needs the flexibility to swiftly respond to unexpected changes in budget requests. A supermajority requirement would get rid of such advantage.