The Oklahoma conservative bastion and corporate media can attempt to rationalize it, but state government continues to inadequately fund public education.
This has caused incalculable harm through the decades. It limits economic development because the state lacks a substantial educated workforce. It has led to high rates of cyclical poverty and hungry families. When people don't have the education to get a good job, their chances of having health insurance decrease.
The conservative base seems more interested in filling prisons than funding schools in Oklahoma these days, and it seems incapable of understanding the obvious relationship between an impoverished educational system and the state's chronic socioeconomic problems.
Oklahomans should keep this in mind as the HOPE initiative petition drive attempts to put a measure on the ballot that would increase educational funding. In their opposition to the measure, the conservatives " and this will include Democrats " will never address a basic question: Why does a child in Arkansas go to better funded and better equipped schools than a child in Oklahoma?
HOPE is an acronym for Helping Oklahoma Public Education. The HOPE initiative is currently in the process of obtaining signatures to place a measure on the ballot that would require the state to fund Oklahoma schools at the regional per student average. Oklahoma ranks dead last in per student funding compared to Colorado, New Mexico, Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri and Texas. The state ranks 48th nationally in per student funding.
According to HOPE supporters, Colorado spends the highest amount per student annually on a regional level at $8,900. New Mexico is next at $8,600; both Arkansas and Kansas spend $8,400; Missouri spends $7,800; and Texas spends $7,500. Oklahoma, as usual when it comes to education, is the bottom feeder at $6,900. The overall average is $8,300.
Nothing but a major initiative like HOPE will even begin to make up for the years of mediocre school budgets. HOPE supporters, which include the Oklahoma Education Association, say the ballot measure, if approved by voters, would initially increase funding for public education by $850 million on an annual basis.
What conservatives have been arguing is HOPE will raise taxes. This is not true. Nothing in the ballot measure requires Oklahoma to raise taxes. Don't forget, the state's politicians, according to a recent Oklahoma Policy Institute study, have been cutting taxes for primarily wealthy people in recent years, thus ensuring public education is inadequately funded.
Underfunded schools can't produce enough college-ready students and even if they could, skyrocketing university tuition, a result of irresponsible tax cuts, stands in the way. All regular Oklahomans end up paying more. The real question is whether the money should go to Oklahoma's richest citizens in the form of tax cuts or to its school children.
Some conservatives will argue the state's low cost of living means it's understandable the state ranks last in per student funding. But is there really a huge difference in living costs between Oklahoma and, say, Arkansas, which manages to spend $1,500 more per student?
Sign the petition. Vote in favor of the question. Oklahomans should support HOPE because it can make a fundamental and logical change in how we fund public schools here. Increasing per student funding to a regional average is hardly radical or drastic. It's just basic common sense.
Hochenauer is an English professor at the University of Central Oklahoma and author of the progressive blog, Okie Funk: Notes From The Outback, www.okiefunk.com.