49th is not OK
BY JULIE DELCOUR Associate Editor
Sunday, June 03, 2012
6/03/12 at 4:15 AM
In the late 1980s, before passage of the historic House Bill 1017, Oklahoma swam with the bottom-feeders nationally in per-pupil spending.
Friends of public education - yes, it had some back then - looked at the ranking and raised hell, proclaiming that "46th is not OK." They went to war on the political front to do something about it.
In a bitter fight, Gov. Henry Bellmon, a Republican, risked his legacy to join with Democrats, led by Senate President Pro Tem Bob Cullison and House Speaker Steve Lewis, to get HB 1017 into law in early 1990. The reform package brought more funding to public schools, the number of students in classrooms dropped dramatically, teachers - paid the worst in the nation - started receiving more competitive salaries, the number of school districts statewide dropped by at least 70, more rigorous curricula were developed to improve student performance.
In late 1991, when opponents tried to repeal HB 1017, voters rose up, knocked the repeal effort on its keister and proved that they supported public education and were willing to pay for improvements. Subterranean per-pupil funding levels, huge classes, among other deficiencies, were not OK.
Now, 22 years later, the powers that be don't seem to lose much beauty rest fretting over public education's problems or the fact that Oklahoma ranks 49th in per-pupil funding. Years of reduced or flat-line appropriations have become the status quo; teacher and staff layoffs seem acceptable, as do huge class sizes. The message from the Capitol is clear: "49th is OK." But we all know that it is not. Receiving several thousand dollars below the national average in per-pupil funding does matter no matter how efficiently districts perform. States with higher per-pupil spending generally have higher student performance.
It's painfully obvious that public education has few champions in high places. To wit:
- Republican legislative leadership this session had trouble controlling its members, many of whom would have given their left arm for a tax cut to brag about on the campaign trail. Cuts were avoided, but just barely, and public education basically received a standstill appropriation. Meanwhile, the blood-letting at the district level continues with more layoffs and program cuts. Districts simply cannot keep up with rising health-care and utility expenses, unfunded mandates and numerous other expenses. Are schools rapidly reaching a point when some might be forced to cut athletic programs just to keep enough teachers in the classrooms? Some fine arts programs already have had deep cuts.
- Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi professes to love public education but she sure has a funny way of showing it. Many superintendents, teachers, parents and students aren't feeling the love and instead feel abandoned in this time of financial crisis.
- And, Gov. Mary Fallin? The governor is fond of public education. But make no mistake, she loves her favorite child - business - far more. She pushed tax cuts until the bitter end last session - all in the name of attracting and sustaining businesses. Business certainly deserves support but so do schools, which are major employers and pillars of the community; school systems prepare the future workforce, which contributes to economic development.
How could tax cuts be justified when large school districts (such as Jenks) are operating at the same funding levels they had several years ago but have added thousands more students? If class sizes grow much larger, students will be taught in gyms or stadiums. Jenks recently received a $1 million private donation to help reduce classroom sizes. That's great, but what about districts that do not receive similar private largesse?
Before HB 1017 passed, Oklahoma was hurting badly in educational funding and school performance. In 1988-89, it ranked 48th in teacher salaries; 46th in estimated per-pupil expenditures; 30th in high school graduation and 24th among the 28 states using the ACT.
After 1017's passage, the situation improved, but not for long. Many of the reforms lost momentum, done in by a lack of funding or a lack of political will to continue or expand upon them. The money simply wasn't there to support dramatic or even consistent progress - to allow per-pupil spending anywhere near the national average. Within 10 years, public education again was stuck at the bottom of the 50 states in per-pupil funding and on several other measures. The "glory" years were over. Yet, without the huge boost to education provided by HB 1017, at least for awhile, where would the state rank now? Behind Somalia?
For years, Oklahoma has chased a moving target in an effort to rise from the bottom - always lagging other states that continue to improve, or certainly do not regress.
There've been setbacks along the way: Gov. Frank Keating, who took office four years after Bellmon left, certainly was no friend of HB 1017, claiming it was more about money than actual reform. We've had at least a decade of phased-in tax cuts. They did not provide much relief individually but had that money gone toward schools, we might not be having this discussion. And then there was the recession that badly hurt all Oklahomans and all state services.
I saw the yard sign last week - stuck into rock-hard ground by parents who want the best for their kids; parents who believe that government - even if it does absolutely nothing else - owes a good public education to this state's children.
The sign said: "49th is not OK."
If only that were so.
Julie DelCour, 918-581-8379
Ashely Moore raises her hand to answer a question while Kelly Brassfield teaches a fifth-grade math class at Marshall Elementary School. Tulsa World file