DALLAS — Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry will serve as the honorary chairman of a group seeking to defeat a proposed constitutional amendment that would increase state funding of public education.
Henry said he agreed to be the ceremonial head of the One Oklahoma Coalition, made up of groups opposed to the proposal, because he had “major, major concerns” about State Question 744. He said it was a “no brainer” to oppose the measure that would require the state to raise K-12 funding to the average per-pupil level of surrounding states.
Voters will decide in November on the measure, one of 11 on the ballot. A competing proposal, SQ 754, would prohibit the Legislature from making expenditures based on spending levels of another state.
A report by the bipartisan Oklahoma Policy Institute said passage of SQ 744 would require an additional $392 million in state funding for public education in fiscal 2012, $415 million in 2013, and $889 million in 2014.
Oklahoma’s $6.7 billion budget for fiscal 2011 provides $2.38 billion for public education, more than a third of total expenditures. Another $1 billion is allocated to higher education.
The Oklahoma Education Association, which led the petition drive in 2009 that put the question on the ballot, said the state funding formula provided local districts with $7,683 per student in fiscal 2011. If passed, SQ 744 would require the state to increase per-pupil funding to at least $9,663 a year, which is the average for Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, Texas, and New Mexico.
The national average is $10,297, the OEA said.
Henry called SQ 744 the “most important state question that we face in at least 20 years.”
Passage of the measure would hamper lawmakers’ ability to respond to changing fiscal situations, Henry said, and would require significant cuts in state agency budgets to comply with the mandate for additional school funding.
Henry said one crippling flaw with the proposed amendment is the lack of a revenue source to generate the additional funds that would be required.
The measure “would just absolutely be devastating to every other area of government at a time when we are slowly pulling out of this economic recession,” he said.
A study of SQ 744 by House fiscal staff said it would require the appropriation of an additional $850 million a year to education. Lawmakers would have three years to meet the regional funding level.
The fiscal report said the income tax rate would have to be increased to about 7.4% from 5.5% to generate the additional $850 million. Other options include an increase in the sales tax rate to 6.2% from 4.5% and cuts of 20% in state agency budgets.
Henry said he agreed with the need for more education funding, but said SQ 744 is not the answer.
“There should absolutely be no debate about whether we need to increase funding for public education,” Henry said. “We absolutely do. But we need to increase funding for public education at all levels.”
Henry, who was prevented by term limits from seeking re-election to a third term, said he has been a strong supporter of more state funding for public education as governor and during his 10 years as a state senator. As governor, Henry convinced the Legislature to raise teacher salaries and pay for increases in teacher premiums for health insurance.
“The easiest thing for me would have been just to sit on the sideline and stay out of this debate,” he said. “But I think this debate is absolutely important, especially given the dramatic negative consequences of passage of State Question 744.”
At a news conference this summer, University of Oklahoma economics professor Alexander Holmes called the proposal “foolish.”
“Not only is it bad constitutional drafting, but it’s double bad because we’re asking other states to determine how much we spend on things,” Holmes said.
Tim Gilpin, who was appointed to the State Board of Education by Henry, said he was disappointed but not surprised by the governor’s decision to oppose SQ 744.
“I knew that the office holders in this state would be against SQ 744 because it will shake up the power structure in Oklahoma City and hold our leaders accountable for the promises they make to our students,” he said. “SQ 744 takes control of school funding from career politicians and bureaucrats, and puts it in the hands of local parents, teachers, and school boards.”