POSTED ON OCTOBER 27, 2010:
$900 Million Question
Big reforms may be in store if SQ 744 is passed. And with state's longtime schools superintendent retiring, education will certainly have a different face
What will Oklahoma public education look like a generation from now?
The future may come into sharper focus Nov. 2, when voters decide the fate of State Question 744 and choose a successor to retiring longtime state Superintendent of Schools Sandy Garrett.
For public schools, it's a once-in-two-decades election in at least two important ways:
First, SQ 744, which would force lawmakers to fund public education at the per pupil regional average, is arguably the most ambitious school reform proposal since Republican Gov. Henry Bellmon's much-heralded HB 1017 package 20 years ago.
Second, Garrett's absence from the ballot for the first time in 20 years not only marks the end of an era in Oklahoma public education, but also portends major changes in the state's approach to educating its children.
In an election where most of the statewide offices, including governor, are up for grabs, as well as all state House and half the state Senate seats, the SQ 744 battle has generated more buzz than anything except perhaps the governor's race.
Virtually the state's entire business community is opposed, as are state employees, higher education leaders and most lawmakers. Even Gov. Brad Henry -- often praised as "the education governor" -- and some teachers -- including members of the American Federation of Teachers -- are opposed.
They worry that other vital state programs -- including mental health, corrections and transportation -- will suffer if the mandate is imposed, siphoning away about $900 million from what in recent years has been a $5-6 billion or so state budget.
Proponents, though, note that Oklahoma is dead last in the region in per pupil expenditures and 49th nationally, despite assurances every election year from candidates of both parties that education is their top priority.
Moreover, supporters argue that SQ 744 can be funded without cutting other programs or increasing taxes, if only state lawmakers would end some of the $5.4 billion in tax exemptions, credits and breaks on the books -- most going to business, including $2 billion incentives that never created a single job.
The proposal was conceived by the Oklahoma Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union, and other pro-public school advocates. They circulated an initiative petition that collected 234,446 signatures -- nearly 100,000 more than necessary to put it to a vote of the people.
It was born of frustration that legislative leaders long promised to increase spending on education to the regional average. Republicans, in fact, rode a promise to fund education first -- no later than April 1 each year -- into legislative majorities starting in 2004. They never delivered on that promise, either.
Early polls showed Oklahomans favored the mandate nearly 2-1, but more recent surveys suggest opinion may have flip-flopped -- nearly 60 percent now opposed. It's unclear if heavy spending by anti-SQ 744 forces on TV ads excoriating the proposal have eroded support for it or whether the polls are missing something.
Joel Robinson, chief OEA lobbyist, said SQ 744 opponents contend "we just can't allow the people to step in and give the Legislature direction on an important issue like education."
"We believe that's the wrong approach," he continued. "For far too long education has been under-funded in Oklahoma. Year after year when the powers that be are out on the stump, what do they tell you? Education is their No. 1 priority. Everyone says education is my No. 1 priority.
"If that's the case, why are we last in the region, 49th in the country?"
Lynn Green, a high school English teacher in Oklahoma City and a member of the AFL-CIO affiliated American Federation of Teachers, agrees that the state's funding of common education in real dollars has declined in recent years.
But he fears the impact on other state services if voters tie education spending to a formula better left to elected officials.
"We are going to have this formula that is going to govern our state's revenues and everybody else will have to try to deal with whatever is left over," Green said.
"Imagine if you will, a couple of years ago, someone had the idea that they would like to tie state prison funding to a formula ... and everybody else is going to have to deal with what we have left in revenue -- people in education would have been opposed to this, and rightly so.
"They would say, yes, we recognize the importance of safe and orderly prisons, we recognize the needs of our corrections system, but this is simply not the means by which we can do this."
Green teaches in an urban school district where more than 90 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced lunches -- and many of them and their families receive other vital state services to keep afloat.
"All the social ills that visit our urban schools--I can find them in my school: teenage pregnancy, drug dependency, gang affiliation -- all of that I find all around me in my school. I love my students. I want the best for them, but they are dependent on those state services which I believe could have a chance to be negatively impacted if we suddenly take our chunk of the state funding out of the formula and the agencies they depend on are left with what's left over."
The fact remains, though, that Oklahoma's per pupil expenditures are worst in the seven-state region. Arkansas spent $10,345 per pupil in 2008-09, compared to Oklahoma's $8,006. The regional average was $9,633. Oklahoma's per pupil spending was $2,187 below the national average, second lowest among the 50 states and District of Columbia.
The OEA's Robinson asserted that a vote against SQ 744 is a vote for the status quo in Oklahoma education -- noting it's been 20 years since the last major education reform effort, HB 1017.
"I'm not a soothsayer, but I can predict pretty well what's going to happen: This time next year or this time five years from now, schools are going to be last in the region, 49th in the country," he said.
"There's not going to be enough social workers at DHS. The corrections employees aren't going to be paid enough to make them at least safe in their jobs. That is the status quo.
"Our kids have to have the education to compete," he said. "If they don't then they will be behind. They will suffer in the future and our state will suffer in the future.
"When you cut through all the rhetoric, don't our kids in our schools deserve the same investment in their education as a kid in Arkansas gets, Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, Kansas and Missouri?"
Looking for Leadership
Whether SQ 744 passes or fails, the next state superintendent will have to deal with the result. Yet, the down-ballot, superintendent's race seems to be an after-thought for many voters.
Democrat Susan Paddack, Republican Janet Barresi and independent Richard Cooper are vying to replace Garrett.
The winner gets to direct a 400-employee state Department of Education that oversees the schooling of more than 650,000 Oklahoma students and $2.3 billion in taxpayer funding -- approximately 40 percent of the overall state budget.
All three insist they are pro-public education. All three oppose forced consolidation of schools. All three don't like the idea of extending President Bush's signature No Child Left Behind program in its present form.
The three are divided over SQ 744 -- Barresi opposes it because no funding source has been identified, Cooper supports it even though he acknowledges it might not be the best solution and could hurt other state services, and Paddack is neutral on it, though she vows to press for increased education funding if the measure fails.
The polls suggest the race is between the two major party candidates -- Barresi, a speech pathologist/dentist-turned-education activist, and Paddack, a former teacher-turned-state senator. It's a considerable hurdle for an independent to win almost any race in Oklahoma, even though Cooper boasts 29 years of classroom experience.
Barresi, 58, is perhaps best known in education circles for founding Oklahoma City's first charter school, Independence Charter Middle School. She then became board president of Harding Charter Preparatory High School, named one of the nation's top high schools earlier this year by Newsweek.
"The system is broken," she said in a recent joint appearance with her two opponents on OETA. But she insists she is not bent on turning all schools into charters. In fact, she said, "my best day will be when they close all the charter schools" because parents' first choice will be their excellent neighborhood schools.
Paddack, 57, is a former junior high and middle school science teacher who later taught future teachers at East Central University in Ada. She has served six years in the state Senate, including a stint as co-chair of the Senate Education Committee, and nine years as director of local education foundation research at the Oklahoma Foundation for Excellent, created by University of Oklahoma President David Boren.
"The future of our state," she said on OETA, "comes down to how well we educate our children."
The state definitely will have a new state superintendent of public instruction next year. And it may mandate an estimated $900 million infusion into public education. But it also could find itself in court over whether SQ 744 can be enforced.
That's because state legislative leaders, worried that SQ 744 might win voter approval, put another proposition on the ballot, SQ 754, that was designed, if approved by voters, to nullify the education spending mandate.
SQ 754 would thwart imposition of any future spending formulas -- and the constitutional amendment would not be amendable, effectively solidifying legislative power.
If both state questions are approved, the state Supreme Court would have to decide which proposition prevails.
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