Across the state this month, kindergarten through 12th-grade students and their teachers are returning to classrooms " places, like elsewhere in state government, feeling the sting of decreased funding as a result of the recession.
According to Shelly Hickman, public affairs director for the State Department of Education, schools are receiving nearly $200 million less this year than they were appropriated in May 2009. Even before the downturn, Hickman noted that almost all of the funding increases for education in the state went to state-mandated teacher pay raises or benefits.
"It has been a very long time since Oklahoma schools were given any additional dollars for operations," she said.
In a little more than two months, however, voters will be able to change that at the polls. If passed Nov. 2, State Question 744 would require the Legislature to raise Oklahoma's per-pupil funding " which ranked 49th nationwide in fiscal year 2008 " to the average of per-pupil funding in Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri and Arkansas. In FY08, based on the National Center for Education Statistics' most recent data, that would have meant increasing Oklahoma's $7,683 figure to $9,147.
Depending on whom you ask, the measure would yield an $850 million to $1.7 billion allocation to pre-K through 12th-grade education and a boon to Oklahoma's future or disaster for other state services. Another of the 11 propositions on the ballot, State Question 754, aims to override the measure and any others requiring that legislators make allocations based on funding in other states.
SQ 744 is "the biggest state question" facing voters this fall, noted Jeff Wilson, campaign manager for One Oklahoma Coalition, which opposes the measure.
"It's got passion on both sides," he said.
The 411 on 744
State Question 744, the result of a successful initiative petition drive championed by the Oklahoma Education Association two years ago, would require Oklahoma match the "regional average" in per-pupil funding. The funds would be used toward daily operation of schools and districts, such as instruction and support services. Decisions over where specifically to use the funds would be made locally.
The measure provides the Legislature three years to come up with the increased allocation. After that point, if the regional average ever takes a dip, 744 requires the state to maintain its allocation from the previous year. In addition, the proposition mandates that the Education Oversight Board and Office of Accountability publish annual reports on how the allocation is spent and student achievement results.
Yes on 744, a coalition including the Oklahoma Education Association, Interfaith Alliance Foundation of Oklahoma, Jewish Council of Oklahoma City, Muskogee-Creek Nation and Sac and Fox Nation, to name a few, backs the measure. Increasing resources to common education ensures that students are competitive in the classroom " and for jobs in the region, according to Walton Robinson, Yes on 744 communications director.
"It takes politics out of the education-funding process," he said.
According to a SoonerPoll.com telephone survey of 755 likely voters in July, 65 percent agreed with him. However, the measure has drawn fire from other groups, including Oklahomans for Responsible Government; Restore Oklahoma Public Education; Transportation Revenue Used Specifically for Transportation; and the One Oklahoma Coalition, whose supporters include The State Chamber of Oklahoma, Oklahoma Farm Bureau, Oklahoma Wheat Growers Association, the Oklahoma City and Tulsa chambers and the Oklahoma Bankers Association.
Politicians " including Gov. Brad Henry and gubernatorial candidates Jari Askins, Drew Edmondson and Randy Brogdon " also have voiced concern. Henry reiterated supporters of 744's argument that without directing additional resources to public education, students and the economy will suffer. But, according to Henry's spokesperson, Paul Sund, "Henry does have major concerns about tying the hands of future state leaders by amending the Oklahoma Constitution with specific budget mandates that limit their ability to effectively respond to emergencies and address needs in other areas."
SQ 744 does not provide a new funding source or raise taxes. Tax increases have been difficult to accomplish after restrictions on them went into place after House Bill 1017 " which ferried millions to common education " passed in 1990, said Larkin Warner, a retired Oklahoma State University economics professor.
Show me the money
How much would the state need to set aside for common education in order to meet the regional average? Robinson estimates between $850 and $950 million. A July brief by David Blatt, director of the Oklahoma Policy Institute, projected a required increase by $1.7 billion between fiscal years 2012 and 2014, noting that the regional average "is itself a moving target." But Robinson cited the nearly $2 billion tab as "grossly inflated" and politically motivated.
Proponents of the measure look to growth revenue over the next three years to fund the increase. In addition, Robinson said that the Legislature would use that period before the allocation became fully funded to reassess the state budget. Press releases from Yes on 744 point to business travel by lawmakers as a way to trim needless expense.
Wilson argues that depending on growth revenue to fund the gap seems "reckless" with reduced state funding.
"Even if you take that figure ($850 million) "¦ the other side still hasn't really developed to get us there (financially)," he said. "That's not a way to run state government " on a hope."
Wilson and other groups opposing the measure maintain that if growth revenue and tax increases can't fund the allocation, 744 will force drastic cuts to other state agencies " a legislative report projected a 20-percent cut across the board to other state services, according to Rep. Leslie Osborn, R-Tuttle.
Robinson, however, points to the positive economic impacts possible through better supporting common education. Decreasing dropout rates, for example, means greater earning power by the state's high school graduates, and therefore increases in income tax revenues. It's an investment, he said.
"I think the larger question is, what is the cost every time another generation of Oklahoma's kids lose out on jobs to Arkansas and Texas?" Robinson said.
When politicians balk at the suggestion, he maintains "that's politicians and special interests doing what they do " guarding their power and influence. They don't like it when you take away their ability to (do something)," he said.
But Osborn, co-author of State Question 754, which is aimed at overriding 744, argues the measure would just put that power in the hands of politicians and voters in other states.
Questioning a question
When the initiative petition to increase Oklahoma's per-pupil funding to the regional average was circulating in 2008, Osborn said she became convinced it would "financially devastate our state." She went to work to put forth House Joint Resolution 1014 in spring 2009.
The resolution " which passed both houses and appears on the ballot as State Question 754 " says the constitution can't require the Legislature to make appropriations decisions based on comparisons to spending in other states.
"The intent of 754 is to ensure that our state constitution stays as it was intended, and that the appropriations process set up by the constitution stays intact," she said.
That involves requiring state agencies and commissions to appear at legislative hearings to discuss financial needs each year, which Osborn said are then weighed against available funding.
"What SQ 744 does is take away that process and demands education be funded in a different way, by allowing our six surrounding states' legislatures to make our financial decisions for us," she said. "According to their state funding, they will allocate their education dollars, and we will have to match their average, regardless of how our economy is doing, how much we have to spend."
For proponents of 744, removing legislators' say in the funding process is positive " it means candidates can't use education as merely a talking point to get elected. But, Osborn said, "this is not about education spending, this is about fairness in appropriations."
A SoonerPoll.com survey of 755 voters in July found only 22 percent of respondents favored SQ 754.
Osborn thinks people may find the "ballot title," the streamlined wording that appears on the ballot, confusing. The actual measure " which is what would be added to the constitution " is more straightforward, she said.
Should voters pass both measures, the one with the most votes will prevail. But Warner " who did staff work for the MAPS for Kids committee and cites that program as evidence for the "huge difference" resources can make in education when managed well " predicts then they would both land before the state Supreme Court.
"There'd be a lot of money made by lawyers and a lot of fuss," he said.
In the meantime, class continues.
top photo Stickers cover a SQ 744 supporter's car. Photo/Walton Robinson
bottom photo Jeff Wilson is campaign manager for One Oklahoma Coalition, which opposes the SQ 744 proposition. Photo/Mark Hancock