Those on both sides of a controversial measure that would lead to a sizable increase in public education spending in Oklahoma are girding themselves for a busy summer of taking their campaigns to the public before voters decide the issue on the November ballot.
State Question 744, known by supporters as the Helping Oklahoma Public Education Act, would require the state Legislature to fund common schools -- those defined as operating at the pre-kindergarten through 12-grade levels -- at a per-pupil amount that is at least equal to the average per-pupil amount spent by the states surrounding Oklahoma: Missouri, Texas, Kansas, Arkansas, Colorado and New Mexico. The measure provides for a phase-in period of three years before that level must be reached.
The measure's financial impact, if it passes, is estimated to be around $850 million a year, though it does not call for a tax increase.
The question of how that sum would be covered -- even as the state Legislature struggles to adopt a new budget before the end of this year's session in just a few days -- is where the two sides differ.
Proponents of the measure argue that lawmakers would have three years to plan and prioritize accordingly before it takes full effect, giving the weak economy time to recover. They point out that revenue growth in the state budget has grown an average of 5.2 percent per year throughout the past 25 years, and that if that trend continues, the Legislature would have an additional $1.5 billion to spend before the three-year benchmark arrives. That would leave more than an additional $600 million that could be provided to other state agencies.
But those opposed to SQ 744 see it merely as an unfunded mandate, a dangerous and expensive proposition that would tie the Legislature's hands and lead to deep cuts in other departments if the state budget does not grow at its 25-year historic average, as was the case this year, when revenues dropped more than 20 percent. They fear the measure's passage would lead to dramatic tax increases and across-the-board reductions at every other state agency.
"There's no funding mechanism to pay for it," said Brian Downes, executive director of Oklahomans for Responsible Government, an Oklahoma City-based nonprofit that is helping lead the fight against the passage of SQ 744. "This would allow surrounding states to dictate how our education money is spent. It's not really a debate on whether education needs more money. Everyone understands you shouldn't take the decision-making authority away from our Legislature."
Downes' organization and others such as the State Chamber of Oklahoma, the Oklahoma Farm Bureau, the Tulsa Metro Chamber, the Oklahoma Public Employees Association and the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce have joined forces to oppose the measure under the banner of the One Oklahoma Coalition, which has launched a website, stop744.com, to assist in that effort.
The inclusion of the OPEA is significant, anti-744 forces acknowledge, because of the unlikely bedfellows adage: unions typically don't find much common ground with such pro-business organizations such as chambers of commerce. Additionally, several prominent Democratic leaders -- traditionally viewed as some of education's biggest allies in Oklahoma -- have expressed reservations or outright opposition to the measure. They've been joined by editorial writers in many of the state's newspapers who already have weighed in against SQ 744, though it won't go before voters for another five months or so.
"Probably for the first time in history, these groups have come together on the same side," Downes said. "This is a very diverse group.
"Because of that, it reaffirms the notion that this is not against education funding, it's not against teachers ... That's the reason you see these diverse groups."
But pro-744 forces are not without some stout backing of their own, namely the Oklahoma Education Association, the state's largest teachers union. Supporters began their petition drive to have the measure presented to voters in the summer of 2008, needing to secure approximately 139,000 signatures within 90 days. They wound up with almost 235,000 signatures in 60 days -- an indication, they say, of how the issue resonates with voters.
"We got far more than we needed in a quicker time than was required," said Walton Robinson, communications director for Yes on 744 (yeson744.com), the organization that is spearheading support for the measure. "People really want a good education for their kids, and this is a great opportunity for voters to give it to them."
Using figures they say were generated from the Department of Education in each state, SQ 744 supporters argue that Oklahoma's per-pupil expenditure of $8,006 is last in the region, trailing Missouri's $8,769, Texas' $9,036, Colorado's $9,574, New Mexico's $10,099 and Arkansas' $10,345.
Robinson said Arkansas residents in particular have benefited from their state's education spending.
"Arkansas invests 30 percent more than Oklahoma, and what they've seen from their investment is a 35 percent increase in the number of students passing the state's literacy exam," he said.
Robinson said the measure's passage would lead to smaller class sizes, allow the state to attract and retain better teachers and ensure Oklahoma students have adequate textbooks and classroom supplies. He pointed out that 10 percent of the textbooks used in Oklahoma public schools are more than 20 years old.
Pro-744 forces also say the measure provides for accountability and transparency by requiring the publication of an annual report on the expenditure of common education revenue, including reports regarding the expenditures of classroom instruction and administrative costs.
But Downes isn't swayed by that. He said Oklahoma spends $4 billion a year on education, counting state and federal funds, and "we don't spend that $4 billion efficiently. Not all that money gets to the classroom ... Before we ask voters to spend another billion, we need to be confident we make sure there's no waste."
Robinson counters with the argument that Oklahomans are tired of waiting for the Legislature to make the kind of commitment to education that other states in the region have. He argued that even when the state was running record surpluses a few years ago, education was not adequately funded.
"(The measure) will release the stranglehold politics has on our kids' future," he said. "Frankly, we don't have to watch our sons and daughters make do with less. This is what we need to do if we expect our kids to excel in the new economy."
The issue will get plenty of attention during the summer and early fall, as both campaigns rev up their fundraising efforts and reach out to the public through grassroots means and the media. But they won't command the undivided attention of voters, as Oklahomans will be electing a new governor, and deciding on their congressional and legislative representatives, among other concerns.
"Voters are going to have a lot of decisions to make come Nov. 9," he said, noting that, at last count, there were nine ballot measures scheduled to greet voters that day -- with the possibility of others being added.
"But we want people to understand that State Question 744 is the most important decision they're going to make at the ballot box that day," he said. "It would have immediate and devastating effects on the future of Oklahoma in terms of budgeting. We expect most Oklahomans are going to side with us."
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