BY DAVID AVERILL Editor, Editorial Pages
Sunday, October 07, 2012
10/07/12 at 3:22 AM
If public education funding in Oklahoma is to be repaired, it's up to Republicans to repair it. More specifically, it's up to voters in future Republican primary elections.
Republicans have a stranglehold on state government, maintaining insurmountable majorities in the Senate and House of Representatives as well as owning every one of the statewide elective offices.
That isn't going to change in the foreseeable future. Of the 67,526 new voter registrations statewide since January, 45,094, or 67 percent, are Republicans. Even independents - voters who choose to be neither Republican nor Democrat - out-gained the Democrats in new registrations by nearly two to one - 15,492 to the Democrats' 6,940.
As was once true of the Democratic Party, the real election contests are now often in the Republican primaries. Less than half of the 125 legislative seats up for election this year will be decided in the Nov. 6 general election.
Deeper and deeper
A great majority of voters are concerned about the state of public education funding in Oklahoma, and they are right to be.
Public education funding this year is estimated to be about $200 million less than in 2009. The national Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that since 2003, education spending in Oklahoma, kindergarten to 12th grade, declined by more than 20 percent, third worst among the states.
The deep cuts in education funding were due in part to the nationwide economic downturn, which drove down revenues from Oklahoma's three main sources of state funds - sales taxes, personal income taxes and oil and gas taxes. But the problem was exacerbated by the Legislature's foolish persistence in making almost yearly cuts in the personal income tax top rates. That reduced income tax revenues by tens of millions of dollars and prevented education funding from rebounding when the national and state economies began to recover.
As a result, school districts across the state have had to reduce the number of teachers and support staff, cut programs and increase class sizes. A few districts, like Tulsa's, have turned to donations from generous patrons to hire back some of the teachers who were to be let go. That is an uncertain thing to depend on going forward and it doesn't help the smaller districts that might not have the resources that are available in the larger districts.
Asked about the cuts in school funding, 64 percent of voters who participated in the recent Oklahoma Poll said they were "very concerned." Another 24 percent said they were "somewhat concerned." Only 11 percent said they were "not concerned at all."
Asked if they thought the Legislature is doing enough to fund public schools, 61 percent said "no." Asked how important a candidate's position on funding for public schools is when voting, 65 percent said "very important" and 29 percent said "somewhat important."
Anecdotally, both Republican and Democrat candidates who have visited with the Tulsa World editorial board this election cycle said that in their campaigning they detected scant interest among voters in further reducing or doing away with the state personal income tax. They did find voters interested in increasing education funding.
Republicans in the Oklahoma Poll were slightly less concerned about education funding than were Democrats and independents, but still concerned.
On the question about cuts in school funding, 55 percent of Republicans said they were "very concerned" and 29 percent said "somewhat concerned." As to whether the Legislature was doing enough to fund public schools, 47 percent said, "no." And when asked how important was a candidate's position on education funding, 54 percent of Republicans said "very important" and 38 percent said "somewhat important."
It's from that 84 percent of Republicans who are very or somewhat concerned with the deep cuts in public education that the effort to fix the problem will have to come. The Democrats can help, but they can't do it by themselves because their numbers are growing smaller. (And besides, they didn't do all that great a job during the 95 years they were in charge; Oklahoma has always been near the bottom in education funding.)
Republicans who truly value public education are going to have to understand that it matters who they vote for - particularly in the primaries. In fact, it will determine whether education funding problems are fixed. A candidate who wants to talk mostly about cutting taxes is not likely to be a lawmaker, or governor, who will push for improved education funding.
David Averill, 918-581-8333
Remington Elementary School students walk down the hall between classes. The National Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that since 2003, education spending in Oklahoma, kindergarten to 12th grade, declined by more than 20 percent, third worst among the states. CORY YOUNG/Tulsa World file