McAlester News-Capital, McAlester, OK

March 28, 2014

Organizers hope persuade legislators to reverse years of cuts to the state’s schools

By JANNELLE STECKLEIN
CNHI

OKLAHOMA CITY — More than 25,000 parents, students and educators are expected to converge on the Oklahoma Capitol on Monday to rally for more money for public education.

Organizers hope to persuade legislators to reverse years of cuts to the state’s schools, said Linda Hampton, president of the Oklahoma Education Association, one of the rally’s sponsors.

Many districts are giving teachers leave — on a school day — to attend. If the turnout is as high as expected, Monday’s rally would be the largest at the Capitol in nearly two decades.

“I’m just so proud,” Hampton said. “They’re willing to give up a day of their time to speak on behalf of Oklahoma’s children. I think that speaks volumes of how much they value Oklahoma’s (youth.)”

Hampton said Oklahoma schools have tens of thousands more students, but are operating with fewer teachers and millions of dollars less in their budgets.

State appropriations for the schools has dropped from just over $2 billion in fiscal year 2009 to about $1.8 billion this year, according to the state Department of Education. In the meantime, enrollment in Oklahoma schools has increased from about 654,000 to about 681,000 during the same period.

Funding per pupil has fallen from $3,275 to $3,032, according to the state.

“We can’t expect everything from public education and only pay for little pieces here and there of it,” Hampton said.

Jeffery Corbett, president of the Oklahoma PTA and a Stillwater resident, said he’s not surprised that so many people plan to attend Monday’s rally.

“They understand our education system is at a point where we need to see a change,” he said.

But educators won’t be the only group lobbying legislators Monday.

Dave Bond, CEO of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, said his bipartisan organization will also be at the Capitol on Monday to ensure “a well-rounded conversation about how we can have the best schools in America.”

“We think it’s unfortunate that schools are cutting into student’s educational time (to hold this rally),” he said. “Essentially (they’re) using taxpayer resources to lobby for taxpayer money.”

Bond said revenues for public education are at an all-time high if people consider the three revenue streams for schools — state dollars, federal dollars and local ad valorem taxes.

Per-pupil revenues have actually increased from $11,796 in fiscal year 2009 to $12,206 in 2013, his group reports.

Bond said more money does not mean more success in the classroom. Despite increases in funding in the past 40 years, test scores have remained flat, he said.

“There is clearly no connection between how much we spend on education and how students learn,” he said.

House Speaker Jeff Hickman, R-Fairview, said constituents and visitors are always welcome at the Capitol, and business will still proceed as usual Monday.

“We will be holding committee meetings and the House will be in session as usual, and members will be there to talk to their constituents about the many issues facing our state,” Hickman said in a statement. “We will have the opportunity to listen to their thoughts, and they will be able to be part of this process as we exchange ideas on how we build an even better Oklahoma for future generations."

House Minority Leader Scott Inman, D-Del City, said he looks forward to hearing from participants in Monday’s rally. He said he and other Democrats are planning to attend the rally and meet afterward with participants.

“We hope when they leave here Monday, they take a message with them,” he said. “And that message is that the legislators in this building must be held accountable for the decisions that they make that affect public education.”

Janelle Stecklein is CNHI’s Oklahoma Capitol bureau chief. Contact her at jstecklein@cnhi.com.