Although state questions typically are overshadowed by such top-of-the-ballot issues as the race for the governor's office or a U.S. Senate seat, that might not be the case in Oklahoma this year, thanks to a controversial proposal that would lead to a sizable increase in public education spending.
State Question 744 would require the state Legislature to fund common schools -- those defined as operating at the pre-kindergarten through 12th-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.
If it passes, the measure's financial impact is estimated to be around $850 million a year, though it does not call for a tax increase.
The Nov. 9 election is still approximately two and a half months away, but that hasn't stopped forces on both sides of the issue from revving up their campaigns as summer draws to a close. Fall promises to bring an even greater focus on the proposed initiative, which already gives the appearance of being one of the more hotly debated state questions in recent memory.
Opponents of SQ 744 -- a group that includes the State Chamber of Oklahoma, the Oklahoma Farm Bureau, the Tulsa Metro Chamber and the Oklahoma Public Employees Association -- were buoyed last month by the release of an issue brief from the Oklahoma Policy Institute, a nonpartisan, Oklahoma City-based think tank that provides information, analysis and commentary on policy issues affecting the state.
The paper identified a number of problems with the proposal. The most serious of those, according to David Blatt, the organization's director, is that it would lead to an enormous increase in funding for common education without providing for any increase in overall revenues.
"We do underfund education in many respects, but we already underfund other areas of public investment, too," Blatt said, adding that requiring such a significant shift in revenue to one area of government essentially would gut others -- health care, public safety and infrastructure among them.
"It would fan a pretty serious crisis," he said.
The institute's issue brief brought an immediate response from pro-744 forces, who questioned the impartiality of the organization by citing the ties of one of its board members to other groups engaged in the effort to defeat the measure. Support for the initiative is being led by the Oklahoma Education Association, the state's largest teachers union.
The Yes on 744 campaign has turned up the heat in other ways, as well, issuing a press release last week decrying the news that the state Transportation Department had approved billions of dollars in construction plans, while education funding was cut in the most recent state budget.
"While opponents of SQ 744 say that Oklahoma cannot afford to invest in our children, they are able to find $4.3 billion for transportation projects," Michael Kolenc, the Yes on 744 campaign manager, stated in the press release. "Those same special interests that are fighting SQ 744 stand to gain financially from this $4.3 billion transportation spending, and all while saying that 49th in the nation in school funding is good enough for Oklahoma. This type of hypocrisy makes it abundantly clear that Oklahoma's kids and schools are not their top priority."
Supporters of the measure claim it will eliminate the stranglehold politics has had on the future of public schoolchildren in the state, pointing out that even when the state was running record surpluses a few years ago, education was not adequately funded.
But Blatt argues that the fundamental fallacy in the proposal is that you can fix one part of the budget in isolation.
"You can't set the education budget based on a very rigid formula and be silent on everything else," he said.
That position has drawn the support of the state's two largest newspapers, The Daily Oklahoman and Tulsa World, both of which have lobbied strongly for the measure's defeat in recent weeks, while warning of its consequences.
An editorial in the World referred to SQ 744 as "a ravenous wolf in sheep's clothing," while the Oklahoman said the addition of the Oklahoma Policy Institute to the ranks of the opposition "is the strongest sign yet of just how ill conceived the proposal is."
For his part, Blatt likens SQ 744 to "planting a land mine in the budget.
"I knew we had to address this issue," he said, explaining the origin of the position paper, "but we wanted to do it in a very thoughtful way. We looked at it in detail, and it's the wrong solution."
Not everyone shares that view. The Yes on 744 campaign has been trumpeting a recently completed Sooner Poll that shows 65 percent of Oklahomans support the measure.
"We were very pleasantly surprised," Walton Robinson, communications director for Yes on 744, said of those poll results, which indicated an increase in support for the measure over the 61 percent of poll respondents who favored its passage several months ago. "But it's not going to affect what we do one bit. We're going to continue to criss-cross the state and reach out to people."
Robinson was in the midst of one of those outreach efforts late last week, traveling through southeast Oklahoma to sell the initiative to voters there. He acknowledged that effort was part of an attempt to keep the issue from being obscured by other concerns.
"There's a lot going on," he said. "There are a lot of races happening. We want to make sure we keep folks engaged and get our message out there. We also want to hold the opposition accountable for the half truths and scare tactics they're using."
Blatt said he recognizes the fact that SQ 744 already has a lot of support among voters, though he believes much of that support is fairly soft.
"I think this is an issue where the bumper sticker for supporters is fairly persuasive," he said. "But as people come to understand there is no funding mechanism for it and understand it'll just be shifting resources, they have another reaction. I've had a lot of people express real concerns about it, and I've heard that from people from all walks of life, including teachers and parents with children in school."
Blatt cited a slogan used by another 744 foe in a recent newspaper editorial -- "We can't solve our budget problems with gimmicks" -- as an effective counter to the idea that public education would prosper under the initiative.
"As people get better informed about the proposal, that initial sense of 'Wow, sounds great' wears off," he said. "Then we can have a serious discussion about this."
Robinson said supporters of 744 will continue to tout their message that the time, and opportunity, to adequately fund public education in the state is finally here.
"We're encouraging people to look at the rankings," he said, citing figures that indicate the state ranks near the bottom of all states in per-pupil average funding for education and teacher pay. "When you look at that, you realize there's no way we can grow the economy or give the same opportunities to our kids that kids in Texas or Arkansas have. Our economy needs it, and our kids deserve it."
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