April Fool's Day came and went quietly at the state Capitol, a routine Friday in which neither the House or Senate convened and no committee hearings were scheduled.
The legislative silence, however, was no joking matter -- for it spoke volumes about the hollowness of political promises.
A brief history lesson: In 2003, the Legislature unanimously approved HB 1247, requiring the House and Senate to finalize common education funding by April 1 each year. The idea ostensibly was to give school districts ample time to make key budget decisions, particularly those involving employment.
The uncertainty weighed on administrators, faculty and staff: Superintendents bemoaned they could not guarantee which teachers would be rehired until well into summer, increasing the risk they would lose their best and brightest faculty to other job opportunities. And teachers were left to gamble their livelihoods -- do you wait for a new one-year contract that might not be extended or jump ship if another offer comes along?
As is so often the case in lawmaking, there is an important back-story: You see, HB 1247 wasn't really about helping the state's public schools -- it was all about partisan political advantage. At the time, Republicans controlled neither legislative chamber. They were forever on the lookout for ways to embarrass the Democratic majority.
So they struck the Democrats where it hurt, undermining them with a key constituency: teachers. The GOP mantra was "Fund Education First!" And the howling went something like this: If Democrats really cared about education, if it really were their highest priority, as they claim, they'd Fund Education First. Elect us -- we promise to Fund Education First. Give us power -- we'll fund schools by April 1.
The next year, in 2004, Democrats delivered on HB 1247, funding public education by the deadline. Nonetheless, Oklahoma voters that November gave the GOP control of the state House for the first time. Two years later, Republicans claimed a state Senate majority as well. Total legislative control.
And what became of the promises to "Fund Education First" -- no later than April 1?
Didn't happen in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 or, now, 2011. Lesson: What the Legislature mandates, the Legislature can ignore.
Not surprisingly, Democrats now are the ones howling -- and with good reason. They were incessantly bludgeoned with the "Fund Education First" canard. And now that Republicans have broken their "Fund Education First" promises seven years in a row, they're anxious to change the subject -- to their version of education reform.
What's particularly noteworthy is that the last four speakers -- Republicans Todd Hiett, Lance Cargill, Chris Benge and Kris Steele -- all voted for the April 1 deadline.
Now the GOP's legislative leaders act as if it doesn't exist.
"I was here in 2003 when we all patted ourselves on the back for prioritizing education and solidifying its importance into statute," said Rep. Danny Morgan, D-Prague.
"Since the Republicans have had control ... we have yet to follow the law, and I have not heard a valid reason as to why. This year I filed an amendment that stated that if the Legislature fails to comply with the Fund Education First deadline, each member of the Legislature will have one day's pay deducted from the member's salary for each day of noncompliance. My amendment, unfortunately, was stalled by politics."
With the April 1 deadline looming, Republicans welcomed former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to help promote their education "reform" package that includes revamping the duties of the State Board of Education, curtailing the rights of terminated teachers and eliminating the practice of social promotion.
Yet at a Capitol news conference featuring Bush, Gov. Mary Fallin, State Superintendent Janet Barresi and GOP legislative leaders, there was no mention of the "Fund Education First" deadline -- only assurances from Fallin she is striving to keep education funding cuts at a minimum and vague promises from all the assembled Republicans that they're working to get as much money into each classroom as possible.
Outside the press conference bubble, GOP insiders assert it's not possible in these tumultuous economic times to complete work on the education budget before April 1. After all, they're attempting to absorb an estimated $600 million revenue shortfall. Cuts to some agencies could reach seven percent. Difficult decisions are being made. Blah, blah, blah.
It's revealing that the budget nightmare didn't keep the Republican majority from wheeling and dealing on pet social issues during the session's first two months -- new restrictions on abortion, attacking Oklahoma's promising stem cell research and the like. Why deal with bread-and-butter issues like the budget when you can pander to your district's noisy theocrats who endlessly demand their religious views become the law of the land? In their parallel universe, separation of church and state is a figment of liberalism's evil mind. Thomas Jefferson must be spinning in his grave.
Even House Speaker Kris Steele, himself an ordained Methodist minister and social conservative, had his hands slapped by House GOP zealots when he had the temerity to suggest lawmakers focus primarily this session on budget issues and on improving the state's business climate and bolstering job creation -- in other words, things that could make a real difference in the lives of most rank-and-file Oklahomans.
In the meantime, Democratic Rep. Jerry McPeak of Warner offers a fascinating statistic: "This session alone, the House and Senate have passed 38 unfunded mandates off their chamber floors -- but they cannot get around to passing even one bill for education funding."
"The school superintendents by law must tell their teachers who has a contract for next year, and those decisions must be made soon. How can they make these decisions if they have no idea what their budget will be?"
It's easy for me to imagine some readers simply throwing up their hands in disgust and declaring a pox on both political parties and the Legislature. Or dismissing the "Fund Education First" flap as nothing more than politics as usual.
But the truth is, it's important. First, what does it say to the public at large when lawmakers violate the law with impunity? Moreover, where's the fairness in leaving school administrators, faculty and staff in the dark on who will and won't have a job next year?
The Legislature's repeated failure to adhere to the education funding law that it enacted amid so much pomp and circumstance leads to an inescapable conclusion: Lip service, not leadership, reigns supreme.
Oklahoma and its children will be the poorer for it.
-(Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; okobserver.net)
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