Educators launch initiative petition

Monday, August 18th 2008, 8:33 am
By: News 9

Associated Press

OKLAHOMA CITY -- An initiative petition that would raise $850 million for Oklahoma public schools is coming under fire from opponents who maintain it would force cuts to other state agencies and programs.

On July 31, educators including those in the Oklahoma Education Association launched an initiative petition drive to call for a statewide vote to amend the Constitution to require more funding for public schools.

State Question 744 would require the Legislature to finance schools at the regional average for per-pupil expenditures. Oklahoma's current per-pupil funding is $6,900 a year, compared to the $8,300 regional average.

State House Republican lawmakers and other groups said it could result in major cuts in state agency budgets or major tax increases, could force school consolidation and would eliminate the Legislature's flexibility on issues.

Rep. Jeff Hickman, R-Dacoma, said the voters elect legislators to set priorities and make decisions.

"That is probably the most basic civics lesson we teach in our schools in this state," he said.

Mandating a percentage or specific dollar amount as the petition would do "strikes at the very heart of that lesson, that very basic civics lesson we teach all students," he said.

Hickman said he has nothing against initiative petitions, but this one involves an appropriation of dollars and mandating an amount to one entity at the expense of others.

The State Chamber of Oklahoma, another opponent of the proposal, said the OEA petition would "handcuff the Legislature by removing its flexibility to develop a responsible budget," strip the Legislature of its oversight of the state budget and cause cuts to vital services.

Members of Oklahomans for Responsible Government, which describes itself as a taxpayer advocacy group dedicated to promoting fiscal responsibility, transparency and accountability, said they were "shocked to learn of the Oklahoma Education Association's decision to take their funding debate to the people."

Supporters of the petition include the Cooperative Council of School Administrators, the Oklahoma State School Boards Association, the United Suburban Schools Association and the Oklahoma Parent Teacher Association.

Rep. Ed Cannaday, D-Porum, a former government teacher, said he has been skeptical of government by petition or referendum because it often is used by legislators to defer their responsibility to govern through legislation. But he said it is ironic that those who have supported this type of governing are now opposed to the OEA's petition drive.

"If it were to become part of our Constitution, it would put into reality positions taken by both our governor and Legislature," Cannaday said of the education petition.

Roy Bishop, OEA president, said the proposal would not take away the Legislature's ability to control the budget. Lawmakers still could determine how to allocate resources, he said.

On why educators are going to voters with this issue, Bishop said:

"Poll after poll shows Oklahomans support education, and they want it funded, and the Legislature has failed to follow through."