The campaign over State Question 744 promises to be one of the most important battles waged during the next three months. On one side are those arguing for significant increases in education funding. On the other side are those that worry about funding cuts to other important government programs. For Oklahomans to make the right decision, they will need to have the best information.
This week the good folks at the Oklahoma Policy Institute did their part to inform Oklahomans when they released a new policy brief arguing that SQ 744 is “The Wrong Solution for Oklahoma.” SQ 744 would amend Oklahoma’s Constitution to require that Oklahoma’s per-pupil education funding would be at least equal to the average of the funding in neighboring states. While admitting that education funding in Oklahoma falls far short of desired levels, the Oklahoma Policy Institute report argues that funding for most government services in Oklahoma also falls far below the national average. As a result they offer four reasons why they oppose the measure:
1. “SQ 744 would ensure the severe underfunding of all other areas of state government.
2. “Budgets should not be determined by constitutional formula.
3. “The language in SQ 744 is unclear and does not reflect the reality of how we fund education, and
4. “SQ 744 is not the best means to achieve the goals of improving educational quality and outcomes.”
It is clear that passage of SQ 744 would significantly increase education funding in Oklahoma — a move that I believe is much-needed.
In 2008-09 Oklahoma’s per-pupil education funding was $8,006 — only 83 percent of the regional average. Compared to the rest of the nation Oklahoma fares even worse.
It also is clear that the passage of SQ 744 would lead either to less funding for other government programs or higher taxes on Oklahoma families. After all, additional funding for education has to come from somewhere — public education isn’t free. It is therefore important for Oklahoma voters to understand both the benefits and the costs of SQ 744 when deciding whether to approve this ballot measure. By providing important information, reports like the one released by the Oklahoma Policy Institute, are a valuable resource to help Oklahomans make an informed choice this November.
This does not mean that the Oklahoma Policy Institute report should be considered as the definitive report on the issue. While there are certainly valid reasons to be concerned about the passage of SQ 744, there also are some good reasons to support the measure.
This is what I hoped to hear from the “Yes on 744” campaign in response to the Oklahoma Policy Institute’s report. Instead, they offered a blistering press release which stated:
“It became obvious today that the Oklahoma Policy Institute and its Board have decided to push a special interest agenda and further their own interests at the expense of Oklahoma’s kids,” said Walton Robinson, Yes on 744 communications director. “The fact that the OPI Board voted to take a political position first should call any of their research into question. Any legitimate think tank would never put backroom deals before policy development. The apparent hijacking of a public policy advocate like OPI proves just how far champions of the status quo are willing to go to rob Oklahomans of the opportunity to give their kids a better future.”
This vicious attack on a respectable organization is both unfair and unwarranted. The Oklahoma Policy Institute has a long record of advocating for public policies that benefit Oklahoma’s children. To say that they are now throwing kids under the school bus is intellectually disingenuous. Oklahoma’s voters deserve better.
I urge the “Yes on 744” campaign to release a thoughtful response to the Oklahoma Policy Institute’s report. The response should acknowledge the concerns being raised by the Oklahoma Policy Institute (and others across the state), but make a compelling case for why Oklahoma voters need to make this commitment to public education. If, as the ballot measure’s supporters claim, the passage of SQ 744 would be good for our state, such a report should not be too hard to write, and would make the task facing Oklahoma voters much easier.
MICKEY HEPNER is an associate professor of economics at the University of Central Oklahoma. Hepner serves on the Executive Committee of the Board of Directors for The Oklahoma Academy.