Arkansas as a Tipping Point, and critiques of a one-cent sales tax hike for education

OKLAHOMA CITY – Greg Kaza, executive director of the Arkansas Policy Foundation, believes “ideas have consequences.” He carries the torch for greater economic opportunities in a state where automobile tags project pride with the slogan “Land of Opportunity.”

A multi-issue conservative policy analyst, Kaza covered many aspects of his work in a recent speech here.

The main purpose of his recent address at the Oklahoma School Choice Coalition was to focus on the experience of his state in the years after then-Governor Bill Clinton succeeded in gaining a 1 cent sales tax increase promoted as a means to finance public school improvement.

Conservatives argued against the tax increase, which came to the fore through the work of an Educational Standards Committee led by then-First Lady Hillary Clinton.

Kaza stressed — in remarks at the Advance Center for Free Enterprise, meeting facility of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA) — that Mrs. Clinton “to her credit, opposed social promotion, supported lower student-teacher ratio and backed higher education standards.”

These days, Kaza contends, “those are not things she talks about.”

Kaza criticized the Clintons of the early 1980s for “their basic claim — that a higher sales tax would lead to better education, more jobs and higher wages. None of that came true. Higher wages didn’t happen, and jobs are still something that is debated.”

Kaza’s contention is that the state’s First Couple erred in their “focus on the sales tax, and not on income growth.”

Conservatives at the time advocated stricter educational standards and, on the economic front, elimination of the sales tax on groceries.

Kaza cited a wide range of “liberal” sources in support of his view of the Clinton partnership. He paraphrased former Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein, author of a widely-read biography of Hillary: “You can’t separate the two. They are a team.”

He pointed to a 1992 news story in The New York Times which concluded the Clinton tax hike raised taxes on the poor and the middle class. Nonetheless, the state’s per capita income ranking among the states remained mired below 80 percent.

Writing in the Weekly Standard, Jonathan Leaf has elaborated on the track record of that Arkansas sales tax hike for education, giving Hillary Clinton and her husband “a failing grade” for the actual results of the tax boost.

In many ways, Leaf wrote, the tax push paved the way for the Clinton presidency. Leaf’s analysis declared that economic data demonstrated the sales tax hike was “a calamitous failure” – economically and educationally.

Kaza pointed out that Bill Clinton himself, who went on to serve two terms as president, eventually revisited the sales tax on groceries and commented that if he had it to do over he would have worked to eliminate or reduce the grocery sales tax.

In point of fact, Arkansas evolved that direction after the Clinton era, over time reducing the grocery sales tax by 75 percent.

And, in the last three years for which data is available, under Republican leadership, Arkansas’ per capita income rank edged up to 82 percent of the national average.

Since 2004, Kaza reports, the state Legislature has slowly edged toward parental choice in education:

“First, public charter schools emerged. Demand for choice these days is coming from both urban areas and from poorer families. Arkansas … last year passed a law that opened up options for active-duty military and for special needs children.”

He noted there are “waiting lists for charter schools and private schools.” And, the state government has assumed control of the Little Rock public school district after controversy over management and poor student performance.

Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson announced, on December 17, an “efficiency project” to examine state government programs. 

This will include Kasa said, “education, particularly in delivery of services.”

(In addition to his support for efficiency and for school choice, Hutchinson has also long advocated prison reform, boosting alternatives to incarceration for non-violent offenders.

In response to questions from CapitolBeatOK, Kaza confirmed his organization has taken “an open approach” with opponents of school choice, frequently participating in forums with defenders of the state’s status quo.

He reflected, “They’ve never burned us in my inter-personal relations. We disagree on issues but discuss them regularly and we include them in our forums.”

In contrast, however, Kaza said “I’ve been burned by journalists who are left-leaning. One columnist recently referred to us as a ‘rich man’s think tank.’ ” The latter characterization is ironic, given the foundation’s enduring status as “a one-man band.”

Looking ahead to a substantive discussion of parental empowerment, he said, “The truth is that choice hasn’t yet been vigorously debated in Arkansas.”

He praised Oklahoma’s Lindsay Nicole Henry Scholarship program, which allows special needs children to access private educational services with their education tax dollars, and also touted the tax-credit-based Opportunity Scholarships.

Kaza is the author of articles for national policy organizations, and in peer-reviewed journals. He recently wrote “Arkansas became the tipping point in the national debate” over the school choice, with its incremental steps making it the 25th state in the Union to adopt pro-choice educational policies.

Speaking before Kaza made his remarks, Oklahoma Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb, a Republican, described Education Savings Accounts as an essential next step for advocates of choice in education.

ESAs allow families to receive debit cards or other mechanisms to access education services of their choice with state-approved institutions or vendors, both public and private.

After Kaza’s speech, members of the education coalition heard from state Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City, who stressed he was ready to press the ESA issue in the 2016 session that begins February 1.

Leslie Hiner of the Friedman Foundation, a leading advocate of school choice, praised the “amazing foundation of support” members of both political parties have established in the Sooner State. Todd Pauley of Faith Leaders for Parental Empowerment, pledged his organization’s support for the ESA drive in Oklahoma.

As for the sales tax idea addressed in Kaza’s speech, for Oklahomans it took on greater saliency on Tuesday, (January 12). 

The Oklahoma Supreme Court cleared supporters of Initiative Petition 403 — to fund public teacher pay hikes through a tax increase – to gather signatures in support of University of Oklahoma President David Boren’s proposal.

NOTE: A member of the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame, McGuigan is a certified school teacher, the author of three books, and editor of seven books.