DALLAS - The Oklahoma Education Association and other educator groups in the state will begin a petition initiative on Wednesday to force the state to increase funding for public education by $850 million a year.
The petition campaign is called HOPE, for Helping Oklahoma Public Education.
The groups are proposing a constitutional amendment that would require the Legislature to fund local districts at the regional average per-pupil level. The regional average is currently $8,300 per student per year, while Oklahoma funds its public education at $6,961 per pupil per year.
The region includes Arkansas, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, New Mexico, and Texas. A U.S. Census Bureau report released in April said Oklahoma's expenditures on public school students put it 47th in the nation. Arkansas was the next closest, ranked 40th with an average of $7,662 per student.
The educators said last week they would file the petition with the secretary of state on Wednesday, which would give them 90 days to gather the 138,970 signatures needed to get the proposed amendments onto the ballot for the November 2010 general election. If the amendment were successful, the state would have three years to phase in the higher funding level.
Roy Bishop, president of the OEA, said tying state education funding to the regional average would ensure the money goes where it would do the most good
"We owe it to our children to provide them with an educational opportunity that is at least average compared to the rest of the states in our region," he said. "The funds will be appropriated to the classroom where our kids will benefit directly.
The OEA and three school districts filed suit against the state in late 2005, alleging that public schools in Oklahoma were underfunded by $1 billion a year. The Oklahoma Supreme Court dismissed the suit in May 2007, ruling that it did not have authority to direct the Legislature's spending.
Rep. Tad Jones, R-Claremore, chairman of the House Education Committee and vice chairman of the House Appropriations and Budget Committee, said about 50% of the state's general fund budget currently goes to education. Raising that share would require cuts in other sectors, he said.
The fiscal 2009 budget appropriates a record $2.53 billion for public education, Jones said, with local districts also receiving $1 billion in local funding and $982 million in federal funds. State funds are allocated among 535 school districts and 14 charter schools.
"The OEA's proposed constitutional amendment would result in at least one of the following outcomes - a massive tax increase at a time when gas prices are skyrocketing, consolidation of schools, or devastating cuts to vital government services such as roads and law enforcement," Jones said.
Jones said the petition drive is an attempt by OEA to obtain an electoral outcome it could not get through the legal system.
"Unfortunately, the OEA didn't learn from their lesson and are now promoting a constitutional amendment that would effectively gut state government and rural schools without any benefit to the taxpayer," Jones said. "I expect this effort will be as well-received as their frivolous lawsuit."
Bishop disagreed with Jones, noting that the Legislature has cut taxes several times in recent years with a promise that lower taxes would result in a more vigorous economy and additional revenues.
"The legislative leaders over the last couple of years have told every one of us that have gone up to lobby that the tax cuts were very important to grow the Oklahoma economy," he said. "We believe those people will know what they're talking about, and in two or three years, we're going to have enough money to fund all our services."