Oklahoma core services far from fine

To the Editor:

In a partisan political age, a fundamental, ideological disagreement often dictates the terms of our debates. That disagreement concerns the proper size and scope of government; what government should do and what it should not.
In Oklahoma in recent years, the debate has been mostly dominated by those who feel that the size and scope of the government, at both the state and federal levels, is too large, bloated by corruption and bureaucracy. On the contrary, Oklahoma agencies face further reductions as income tax cuts loom large on the horizon. The Republican agenda, despite the various inadequacies of state government, is to further cripple it. This agenda is wrong for Oklahomans.
Whether the discussion revolves around education, roads and bridges, the health of our state, or how we take care of our senior citizens, Oklahoma’s government lingers on the brink of a coma induced by massive budget cuts. Many politicians love to play a disingenuous rhetorical game by proclaiming that Oklahoma’s government is too large and incompetent one moment, then stating that the government is functioning “just fine” on the other, and therefore can tolerate further cuts.
One needs look no further than the state of Oklahoma’s public school system to see the evidence of the government’s starvation into inadequacy. Oklahoma’s schools ranked “far below average” in the 2011 Science and Engineering Readiness Index, which assesses schools’ aptitude in preparing students for careers that involve science and mathematics. According to the National Education Association, Oklahoma ranks 49th in the amount of dollars it spends per student. Class sizes in Oklahoma schools are swelling while education support staff is downsized and less dollars go to elective courses, textbooks and technology, and basic operational needs of the school.
Many of these failures, but not all, can be attributed to the policies of our egregiously unqualified Superintendent of Public Instruction, Janet Barresi. Last year, the Republican majority in the Legislature, followed by the Republican Governor, gave Barresi unprecedented powers over the State Board of Education. She used those powers to cut funding for reading sufficiency programs, professional development programs, and popular and effective programs such as Literacy First and the Street School in Tulsa that offered alternative classes and therapeutic counseling to students. In addition, she cut the stipend for National Board Certified Teachers. Thankfully, through the efforts of many concerned legislators and outraged citizens, the stipend was provided for through a supplemental appropriation. Right now I am fighting to ensure that NBCT teachers keep their annual stipend in the years to come. However, we cannot expect the Republicans’ and Barresi’s battle against public education and teacher compensation to end there.
The school system is not the only program in which the effect of funding cuts is becoming more pronounced. Oklahoma ranks near the bottom in a number of important health indicators, such as number of deaths due to heart disease, yet this statistic remains ignored as Republican leadership has voiced no intentions to backfill the 20% cut in funding the Department of Health has sustained over the last three years.

The Department of Corrections is constantly running at maximum capacity, and currently the ratio of inmates to officers is 160 to 1. Oklahoma continues to be counted as one of the worst states in the number of structurally deficient bridges.

The “Child Maltreatment 2009 Report” states that Oklahoma has “the third worst rate in the nation…five times the acceptable national standard” for abused or neglected children under state care, yet we systematically underfund the needs of the Department of Human Services. As a result, DHS lacks the dollars necessary to employ more case workers in order to lessen unsustainable caseloads. However, as part of a settlement of a recent lawsuit, DHS was ordered to reduce its caseloads. The lawsuit alleged foster children were being abused and mistreated while in state's custody, and is now requiring the hiring of more caseworkers to meet reasonable professional standards in order to reduce the number of deaths due to child abuse or neglect. Caseloads reported by DHS range from between 20 children and more than 30 children per worker, when accrediting body standards call for no more than 18 children per caseworker, or eight per caseworker in the case of special needs children. The settlement also created a three-person panel to oversee needed reforms. However, if we continue to starve DHS of resources, we will without a doubt face another lawsuit and worse, allow abuse or neglect to continue unchecked due to lack of appropriate and timely intervention.
With these issues in mind, I am reminded of Grover Norquist’s quip that he’s not in favor of abolishing the government, he merely wants to “shrink it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub." Yet shrinking government even more than it’s already been trimmed is tantamount to turning our backs on our commitment to protect individuals. In Norquist’s world, and those who follow his ideology, we eliminate or severely constrain the Department of Education, the Department of Health, of Human Services, of public safety.

Meanwhile, the state continues to give subsidies to big oil and gas companies, which effectively pay negative tax rates. You can see the results in their huge Tower of Babel in downtown Oklahoma City, but what price did rural school districts pay for that luxury? Are jobs for these companies important than jobs for rural schoolteachers?

I urge lawmakers and citizens alike to set the bar higher, to aspire to make Oklahoma a better place for its people, rather than a state that inhibits its government to the disservice of all.

State Representative Mike Brown, Tahlequah    

State Representative Mike Brown

Go Back

CapitolBeatOK welcomes letters to the editor. All submissions should be no more than 400 words and e-mailed to editor@capitolbeatok.com. Please include a contact phone number for verification purposes. All letters are subject to editing. Letters to the editor will remain posted for one week at the editor’s discretion.

sign up for email updates

Steal Our Stuff