OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — A legislative update sent to members of the Oklahoma Education Association carries a foreboding headline: “Public Education Is Being Dismantled.”
Roy Bishop, OEA president, said “public education is being attacked on all fronts” by bills that expand charter schools, create a voucher system and cut taxes, thereby reducing funding available for schools.
Measures winding through the Oklahoma Legislature would reduce revenue available to schools by $100 million, on top of huge potential revenue losses tied to almost $600 million in tax cuts enacted in recent years, Bishop said.
He said schools would lose $70 million if vehicle tax money is diverted to highways, $25 million if the cap on local property tax increases is reduced from 5 percent to 3 percent and $5 million if tax credits are approved to permit some students to transfer out of low-performing schools.
Legislation introduced by Sen. John Ford, R-Bartlesville, would set up a pilot program where 10 school districts could operate schools that would be similar to private charter schools. Charter schools, which do not have to comply with many state regulations, are now confined to the Oklahoma City and Tulsa area.
Senate Co-President Pro Tem Glenn Coffee, R-Oklahoma City, said the OEA’s assertion of an attack on education “doesn’t comport with reality. I think it is intended to be a scare tactic to try and kill the bills.”
“The fact of the matter is the legislation is about providing more choice and creativity in the public schools,” said Coffee, sponsor of a Senate-approved bill to allow American Indian tribes to set up charter schools.
Bishop said the way to help public schools is to provide adequate funding for the entire education system, so no one is left out.
He said it is not an overstatement to say that public schools are under attack in the Legislature.
“When you are talking about tax credits, vouchers, deregulation — those are things that attack the foundation for success of our schools.
“When you are cutting the legs out from under our funding, as well, you are setting up Oklahoma’s schools to fail,” Bishop said.
Because of slowing revenue collections, Oklahoma lawmakers have $114 million less to spend than they did a year ago.
Schools usually get about 58 percent of growth revenue in the state’s General Revenue Fund, used to fund most government programs.
Although Oklahoma’s economy is still growing, officials say, tax cuts have undermined efforts to raise teacher pay to the regional average and improve Oklahoma’s low standing among the states in per pupil expenditures.
Ford prefers to call his bill “deregulation” of public schools. The measure hits home with the OEA because the deregulated public schools, like private charter schools, could refuse to participate in collective bargaining. The OEA is the state’s largest teacher union, with nearly 40,000 members.
The deregulated schools also could opt out of having teachers certified by the state and avoid other state mandates, such as teacher evaluations and standards for substitute teachers.
Rep. Tad Jones, R-Claremore, House Education Committee chairman, is sponsoring the bill in the House.
Jones says it is a measure that tells schools: “Here’s your chance to deregulate. If you want to you can. If you don’t want to, you don’t have to.”
“One of the things I’ve heard from school board members is we pass too many mandates in Oklahoma City, and if districts did not have all those mandates they could make their dollars go farther and they could educate the kids better,” Ford added.
“The important thing to remember is that all the federal mandates still apply,” he said. “Under the No Child Left Behind Act, schools would still be required to have highly qualified instructors or teachers.”
Sen. Jim Williamson, R-Tulsa, won approval in the Senate of an amendment to another bill creating the “New Hope Scholarship Program,” financed through 50 percent tax credits to anyone who donates to the program.
Under the program, scholarships of $5,000 a year would go to finance the transfer of low-income children from schools that have been on the state’s list of failing schools for more than three years.
Sen. Jay Paul Gumm, D-Durant, recently called the bill a “social Darwinism” scheme that creates a voucher system, taking public dollars and transferring them through the use of tax credits to private schools.
Williamson, a social conservative, rejects that characterization and says assertions that the bill permits students to be “cherry-picked” from poor schools also are not accurate.
If there are more students wanting scholarships than money available, he said the students who get the scholarships are to be chosen at random.
He said the bill is a good deal for taxpayers because public funds are paying only half of the $5,000 scholarship that covers the cost of educating a student in Oklahoma public schools.
The program differs from a true voucher system, he said, “where any parent of any income can use vouchers along with their own resources to send children to high-cost private schools.”