House Democrats challenge majority to “fund education first”

Shortly after adjournment on Thursday (March 31), members of Oklahoma’s House Democratic caucus met with reporters to criticize the majority party for failing to meet strictures laid down seven years ago in legislation dubbed “Fund Education First.” They took other jabs at the GOP majority’s performance on education issues.

 In an interview with CapitolBeatOK, minority leader Scott Inman, a Del City Democrat, listed several items on the Republican agenda that he characterized as anti-education. His comments focused on efforts to change the powers of the state Board of Education, enhancing the authority of the state superintendent of public instruction, and the end to “trial de novo” rights for public school teachers dismissed from public employment. 

 Inman summarized some measures as “eliminating the rights of teachers.” However, his most pointed criticisms were aimed at “the failure to keep the promise made to ‘Fund Education First.” Inman observed, “They have violated that state law every single year. This year, once again, we’ll have no budget,” by April 1. 

 He continued, “We’re opposed to the direction the majority wants to take our public schools with more reliance on charter schools and support for voucher programs.” 

 Rep. Inman stressed the history of House Bill 1247, a measure passed in 2003. The Legislature met the “Fund Education First” deadline the next year, finishing the process by March 22, 2004. Inman asserted, “When ‘Fund Education First’ was created, the Republicans wanted it and passed it. … Since 2005, the Republicans have never made it. In the past they blamed the Democrats for being late with budgets, but they can’t blame us for this. 

 “I don’t understand why the governor, the speaker and the president pro tem couldn’t get together and pass a budget for education. There’s a lot of stress right now in public education. Some of our rural superintendents are unable to make plans for the next school year became of this situation.”

 In a more detailed statement provided after the event, Inman said, “We’re not here to debate the merits of the Fund Education First deadline – it’s well established why we enacted this law.” In fact, the last four Speakers of the House all voted for this bill in 2003, with three of the four actually co-authoring the bill. … 

 “Right now we have eight Republican legislators who also voted for this bill who are still here today – most notably our Speaker of the House Kris Steele. We’re here asking why every year since the Republicans took control … they have chosen to be in violation of their own self-imposed law.”

 State Rep. Danny Morgan of Prague, former minority leader, also provided comments to CapitolBeatOK, observing, “I was here in 2003 when we all patted ourselves on the back for prioritizing education and solidifying its importance into statute.”

 However, he continued, “Only once, in 2004, which was the last year that Democrats were in control of the Legislature, were we in compliance with the law.” Since the Republicans have had control the last six years we have yet to follow the law, and I have not heard a valid reason as to why. 

 “This year I filed an amendment that stated that if the Legislature fails to comply with the … deadline, each member of the Legislature will have one day’s pay deducted … for each day of noncompliance. My amendment, unfortunately, was stalled by politics.” 

 Also commenting was state Rep. Mike Brown of Tahlequah, who serves as the Appropriations and Budget Advisor for the caucus. He said, “We are in session for only a short time, and we have $500 million less to spend than last year, when all our agencies for the second year in a row received a cut in funding.

 “Last year our education system was cut by 3% – and they are bracing for tougher days ahead. Although we as legislators are mandated to do so, we are not providing them the tools they need to prepare for the year ahead.”

 Two educators who are members of the caucus joined the leadership’s criticisms of the majority. 

 Rep. Ed Cannaday of Porum, common education advisor to the caucus, asserted, “While we take up every other bill in the House but appropriation bills, we are keeping our schools in the dark as to what dollars will be available.”

 “Teachers and support staff are being held in limbo as to if they will have a job or not – and some have been let go in hopes that dollars will be there soon to bring them back. We have to do a better job here at the Capitol in order to allow school districts to make appropriate hiring decisions.”

 Caucus Chairman Jerry McPeak, from Warner, complained, “This session alone, the House and Senate have passed 38 unfunded mandates off their chamber floors – but they cannot get around to passing even one bill for education funding.” 

 “The school superintendents by law must tell their teachers who has a contract for next year, and those decisions must be made soon. How can they make these decisions if they have no idea what their budget will be?”

 The Democrats arranged for several public school administrators to join the press conference. One was Superintendent Rick Antle of Porum. He described a back-and-forth budgeting process last cycle, when he let some aides and teachers go, but rehired some later. 

 In his prepared comments, Antle contended, “We were later able to rehire some of the aides once we received funding information. This year, we can’t afford to lose any more staff, period. If we receive any cuts, it will be programs that will be lost, as it’s all we have left, such as our agriculture programs and athletics.”