McAlester News-Capital, McAlester, OK

State House

October 26, 2010

Use of potential new education money debated

Officials discuss how to spend money on schools if money is available

OKLAHOMA CITY — State Question 744 has revitalized the debate regarding the state's relatively anemic spending on public education.

Opponents and supporters continue to argue the benefits and consequence of the ballot measure that would require the state to significantly increase its investment on public kindergarten through 12th-grade schools. But many educators and school officials agree new money – either though State Question 744’s mandate or by other legislative means – is desperately needed.

The National Center for Education Statistics ranks Oklahoma 49th in the country for its per-pupil education spending. A report recently released from the Education Law Center also gave the state an “F” for its education funding effort level.

Joseph Siano, superintendent of Norman Public Schools, said more spending is needed to just maintain his district’s current programs and staffing levels. Schools will not be able to rely on federal stimulus money next year, and most districts could face a second or third consecutive year of significant budget cuts.

“Through (State Question) 744 or not, something needs to be done or we will be looking at significant reductions,” Siano said. “We need a whole lot of money just to stay even.”

State Question 744 would amend Oklahoma’s Constitution to require the state to spend annually no less than the average amount spent on each student by the surrounding states of Missouri, Texas, Kansas Arkansas, Colorado and New Mexico. An interim House of Representatives study in 2009 estimated this would cause the state spend $850 million more on education by the time it goes into full effect the third year after passage.

Supporters of the ballot measure, such as the Yes on 744 Campaign, said the money could reduce class sizes, allows schools to purchase new textbooks and computers and improve special education programs.

Stillwater Board of Education President Kevin Clark said he opposes the state question. However, he called on state lawmakers to find other ways to increase its investment in public education.

Clark said Stillwater could use the additional money to expand its math programs by buying new textbooks. He said increasing teacher pay could help attract the best educators and prevent in-state teachers from leaving Oklahoma.

“Our teachers are some of the lowest paid in the country,” he said. “We need additional funds so we can stay competitive in the world.”

Pat Harrison, superintendent of Ada Public Schools, said hiring teachers is at the top of his “Christmas list” if new money was made available. He said smaller class sizes likely would lead to higher test scores.

“The lower the student-teacher ratio you get, it is going to have an impact on the learning process,” he said. “You can have more one-on-one time and help when you need it. In those bigger classes, those opportunities aren’t as great.”

Norman’s Siano said more funding would also allow long-talked-about reforms to get started. He said programs, such as merit pay for teacher and investing in technology, could be jumpstarted rather than just talked about.

Critics of State Question 744 say that the measure would devastate other state agencies and programs that would lose funding if taxes are not raised to make up for the new education spending. Officials, including Oklahoma University President David Boren and Oklahoma State University President Burns Hargis, also note higher education could suffer if voters approve the state question.

“We strongly support improved funding for K through 12 education, however, State Question 744 provides no revenue sources to pay for its mandates,” the two university presidents said in a joint statement. “Without new revenue sources, it would cause destructive cuts in other vital state services, like higher education, vocational-technical education, highways, law enforcement and medical services.”

Pryor Public Schools Superintendent Don Raleigh said higher education and vocational schools need to be factored into any question about school funding. But he said without the ability to raise tuition, school districts are already bracing for more cuts if no action is taken.

“I don’t think anyone in the whole state, especially our legislative branch, doesn’t realize there is a need for this,” he said. “Regardless if you are for or against 744, there has to be more funding for our schools. You can’t look at Oklahoma and the rest of the country and realize that more funding is not appropriate.”

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