No matter what the voters decide about State Question 744, the debate over funding Oklahoma's public schools is really just beginning.
A seismic shift in the state's population -- from rural to urban, small town to regional center -- eventually will force lawmakers to tackle a subject they've studiously avoided for years: consolidation.
The problem is, the "C" word is almost as toxic politically as raising taxes -- maybe even more so if you're a rural legislator.
In rural areas, towns and schools are one, sharing an unbreakable economic bond and an identity. It seems positively quaint in the Internet age, but it's not uncommon to still find entire communities gathered on Friday nights, cheering their local gridiron heroes.
Check out the downtown storefront windows, decorated with the home team's colors and slogans exhorting them on to victory when they make it to the state basketball tournament in Oklahoma City's "Big House" -- the State Fair Arena.
I didn't grow up in a small town, but my wife's parents did. When we visit her father's hometown out in western Oklahoma, it's hard to imagine it was once a bustling agriculture center. The school closed decades ago, the victim of declining population, and the town has withered ever since.
It's true: As the schools go, so go the towns. No rural legislator is going to roll over and let the city slickers consolidate their schools by force.
But even if voters approve SQ 744 -- and if Oklahoma's schools are finally financed at the per pupil regional average -- it doesn't change the fact the state is facing some lean economic times, at least in the near future.
With a projected $1 billion-plus budget hole facing lawmakers for the 2011-12 fiscal year that starts next July, they will be searching frantically for efficiencies -- ways to cut costs, maybe even wring a drop of blood from the proverbial turnip -- especially if the education spending mandate is approved.
Which puts many urban legislators -- especially conservative Republicans who bleat incessantly that Oklahoma has too many school districts and too much administrative overhead -- in a most ticklish position.
You see, these same lawmakers also harp around-the-clock about "local control." The federal government (or the bureaucrats in Oklahoma City) shouldn't be telling us what to do! We know the problems; we know the solutions. It's a political talking point that has become a pithy conventional wisdom: the government closest to the people is best.
Except when it's not. Sometimes distance helps perspective. We might never have ended slavery or segregation, for example, had it not been that other Americans -- with the benefit of distance -- could more clearly see the injustice.
The reality is: those who both complain that we have too many school districts in Oklahoma yet insist that local control is an inviolate principle are talking out of both sides of their mouths.
We have so many school districts in Oklahoma because we have local control.
Let's look at the numbers: This year, Oklahoma has 527 public school districts, including 103 dependent, Pre-K through eighth grade districts. Actually, those numbers have declined steadily in the last half century -- down from 1,468 districts in 1957-58.
Imagine this: At statehood, Oklahoma had 5,656 school districts, serving, of course, a population that was mostly scattered across 77 counties -- not concentrated in two major urban areas and a handful of regional centers.
Here's what really sets off those who complain most that Oklahoma has too many districts: In 2008 (latest figures available), the state had 520 full-time-equivalent superintendents, earning an average $82,605 annual salary.
Of course, the superintendents are hired by locally-elected school boards, who also just happen to set the superintendent's salaries.
It also should be noted: The state's public school experts -- the State Department of Education -- don't have the statutory authority to close schools based on enrollment or funding.
So it's up to the Legislature. A Legislature that so far has been very reluctant to seriously tackle the subject. Maybe that's the plan: What better talking points than "government waste" (i.e. too many school districts, too much administrative overhead) and "local control" -- though these may be mutually exclusive principles when it comes to public education?
Can you imagine the firestorm if lawmakers seriously debated consolidating schools into countywide school districts -- reducing the number of districts from 527 to 77?
The patrons-taxpayers-voters in Jenks, Union, Broken Arrow, Owasso, Edmond, Putnam City, Moore and Midwest City-Del City -- high-achieving suburban districts surrounding troubled urban school districts -- would revolt.
So would the good folks in smaller Oklahoma towns, who would be quick to point out that their schools work -- often producing better overall results (higher test scores, students better prepared for college) than the state's urban centers.
It's fair to say more than a few legislators would lose their jobs.
I'm not suggesting that the Legislature's first order of business when it reconvenes next year ought to be school consolidation. It's a complex matter, even if politics weren't a factor.
Do we, as a matter of public policy, continue to search for ways to bolster rural areas -- with public schools as an essential component? Do we allow many of those smaller towns to die slow, agonizing -- but natural -- deaths?
Or do we embrace the model of the two Rutgers University professors, Frank and Deborah Popper, who suggested a government policy of systematically depopulating the Great Plains and further encouraging development of regional centers -- towns like Woodward and Guymon, Altus and Lawton, Ardmore and Durant, McAlester and Ada?
It's not necessarily something that Oklahoma's elected leaders want to tackle, but it's something that hard economic times -- if they persist -- may require.
-- Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; www.okobserver.net"
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