POSTED ON MARCH 10, 2010:
Lip Service to Education
Oklahoma's elected leaders rarely have put their money where their mouths are when it comes to public education.
When it comes to Oklahoma's political leaders, few topics generate more lip service than public education.
Republicans, for example, routinely promised that if they ever secured a legislative majority, they would fund education first -- no later than April 1 each year -- so districts would know early how much money they'd have for the next school year, and teachers, whether they'd have jobs. The GOP now has controlled the House eight years and the Senate two and not once has the education budget been settled by April 1.
Democratic Gov. Brad Henry, meanwhile, pledged to boost abysmal teacher salaries to the regional average -- a plausible goal when oil and gas tax revenues were overflowing midway through the last decade. In his seven years as governor, it never happened -- though he deserves credit for securing better-than-average teacher pay raises and some relief from their soaring health insurance premiums.
Given the state's fiscal crisis -- a projected $1.2 billion hole in next year's budget -- neither commitment is even remotely likely to be met this year, either.
The truth is, it's good politics to campaign as a staunch supporter of public education because Oklahomans -- especially in rural areas and suburbs -- love their schools: They unite communities across socioeconomic, religious and racial lines. They stir local pride through sports teams, bands and academic squads. They often serve as a town's front door to the outside world.
Yet, Oklahoma's elected leaders rarely have put their money where their mouths are when it comes to public education. Aside from Gov. Henry Bellmon's marvelous House Bill 1017 reforms in the late 1980s, the state has languished near the bottom nationally in per pupil expenditures, teacher salaries and other financial investments.
Tired of the broken promises, the Oklahoma Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union, and other public school advocates joined forces to propose a constitutional amendment that would require state lawmakers to fund public education at the per-pupil average of surrounding states.
The pro-public school forces collected signatures from more than a quarter million registered voters to ensure State Question 744 appears on the November general election ballot. That's almost twice as many signatures as required -- powerful evidence that Oklahomans support their schools and want them improved.
Remarkably, though, if you listen to politicos, read the state's newspapers and surf the Internet, you'd think the proposal is doomed, Oklahomans rising in opposition with a fervor normally reserved every October for a certain orange-clad football team from south of the Red River.
Republican legislative leaders and the Democratic governor? Opposed. GOP and Democratic gubernatorial candidates? Opposed. The State Chamber, the Farm Bureau, the highway contractors, some newspapers and even some teachers groups? All opposed.
You'd think SQ 744 has no chance of passing ... but you'd be wrong.
Look no further than the recent Tulsa World/Oklahoma Poll for evidence: 61 percent of the 621 likely voters surveyed statewide support the proposal, only 23 percent oppose it and 16 percent were undecided or declined to answer.
Even more interesting: They expressed opposition (57 percent to 22 percent) to a second, stealth proposal, State Question 754, designed to nullify SQ 744. It was placed on the ballot by Republican lawmakers fearful the OEA-backed plan would be approved.
State voters may not know the particulars, but they know their schools don't receive funding comparable to other states. They may not know, for example, that Arkansas spent $10,345 per pupil in 2008-09 compared to Oklahoma's $8,006, but they know education is the key to a brighter future.
And they know that despite offering lip service, state leaders, both Democrats and Republicans, historically haven't delivered on public education. Instead, they melt beneath the sweet-nothings of well-heeled special interests that fill campaign coffers, yet demand tax breaks and other state incentives that limit tax dollars available for education and other worthy projects.
The intense opposition to SQ 744 is -- first and foremost -- about preserving political power and protecting special interests' claim on state budget dollars. And it is full of hypocrisy.
Now that they are in charge of the Legislature, Republicans are opposed to a constitutional mandate on education spending. But when they were a legislative minority, they championed State Question 640 -- the constitutional amendment that makes it all but impossible to raise taxes, no matter how dire the emergency.
Several years ago, state highway contractors campaigned successfully for a proposal that guarantees they get a substantial cut of on excess cash in the state budget. Now they complain that SQ 744 would siphon away $850 million in state revenues, cutting into sorely needed monies for the state's decrepit bridges (rated America's worst) and substandard highways.
It also must be noted that some of the opposition to SQ 744 is about raw electoral politics. More than a few Republicans, backed by the State Chamber and corporate interests, have long schemed to destroy the teachers' union, arguably the most powerful worker organization left in Oklahoma. They aren't anti-public education, they're anti-union. In their minds, defeating SQ 744 is a huge setback for OEA. Should SQ 744 be approved? The corporatists get the shakes even thinking about it.
So why would Democrats, who are typically viewed as pro-union, pro-public education and thus stand to benefit from OEA support, oppose SQ 744 -- especially gubernatorial contenders Drew Edmondson and Jari Askins?
Many reasonable politicos, both Democrats and Republicans, philosophically oppose constitutional spending mandates. They believe -- and so do I -- that we elected our representatives and send them to the Capitol to study the issues and make decisions, based both on the present and the future needs of the state. Earmarking 40 percent or more of every state budget dollar without room for debate is far from ideal public policy.
But it's laughable that so many state leaders who extolled the virtues of SQ 640 -- wouldn't it be prudent in the current fiscal crisis to review the tax structure, perhaps even raise some? -- would be so flummoxed by SQ 744.
I don't know whether SQ 744 will be approved in November. In politics, nine months is a lifetime. And I have no doubt powerful corporate interests will spend a boatload on advertising aimed at killing it.
More than a few times, though, Oklahoma voters have bowed their necks and taken matters into their own hands when lawmakers repeatedly failed to act. This may be one of those times.
After all, there's no excuse for Oklahoma to commit far less for each student's education than any surrounding state. If only Mississippi were in our region ...
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