Friday, August 1, 2008

OEA Proposal Would Create Enormous Unfunded Mandate

A constitutional amendment promoted by a teacher's union would impose the largest unfunded mandate in Oklahoma history and could require massive budget cuts to vital agencies or enormous tax increases on working families.

"The Oklahoma Education Association's proposed constitutional amendment would require major reductions in crucial needs such as roads, public safety and health care programs; increased taxes; or both," said state Rep. Tad Jones, a Claremore Republican who is vice-chair of the House Appropriation and Budget Committee and Chair of the House Education Committee. "It's completely unnecessary. The Legislature has provided record-setting appropriations for schools for several years in a row, including significant teacher pay increases, and our commitment to education remains strong."

Nearly 50 cents out of every Oklahoma state tax dollar currently goes to education. This year, total state, local and federal funding for public schools will exceed $4.15 billion and the National Education Association's own figures show Oklahoma spends about $6,944 per student - more than the cost of a year's tuition at either OU or OSU.

In fact, Oklahoma's public school expenditures as a percentage of gross state product rank 17th highest in the nation, so Oklahomans actually devote a larger share of their available dollars to schools than most states.

Aside from potential cuts, any tax increases indirectly required by the OEA initiative would be devastating to working families already struggling to get by, Jones said.

"Oklahomans can't afford higher taxes," he said. "We recently lowered income taxes and raised the standard deduction for working families and retirees. To reverse course at a time when Oklahomans are facing $4 gas would create a real hardship for many."

The potential cuts to state programs forced by the OEA would be felt across the state.

"Oklahoma roads are in desperate need of repair and the eight-year plan approved this year will be imperiled if the OEA's constitutional amendment is adopted," said state Rep. Mike Thompson, an Oklahoma City Republican who chairs the House Transportation Committee. "How will it help our economy to put more money into schools if our roads look like a minefield and our bridges are on the verge of collapse?"

A recent review by USA Today found that Oklahoma has more than 5,000 bridges considered deficient - the second-most in the nation.

Public safety programs could also be imperiled by the OEA's plan.

"There are about 25,000 inmates in Oklahoma prisons and, contrary to the urban legends, those men aren't 'non-violent offenders;' they're murderers, rapists, child molesters and drug dealers," said state Rep. Rex Duncan, a Sand Springs Republican who chairs the House Judiciary and Public Safety Committee. "Recklessly cutting our public safety budget would literally endanger lives."

The OEA plan could also endanger the future of many schools.

State Rep. Jeff Hickman, chairman of the House Rural Caucus, who represents five counties in northwest Oklahoma, noted that the OEA initiative is similar to one implemented in Arkansas that led to school consolidation even as lawmakers increased funding.

"It's this simple: The states the OEA cites as models closed rural schools," Hickman said. "And since the OEA plan is very similar to the Arkansas initiative that led to the consolidation of 57 schools, it's hard to believe they don't expect the same thing to happen in Oklahoma. Reducing educational opportunity does not help Oklahoma children. We need to support our schools, not close them."

In Arkansas, lawmakers closed schools and increased taxes as they worked to hike school funding, yet failed to improve student performance. Hickman said it's no surprise Oklahoma students continue to outscore Arkansas kids on the ACT.

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