It’s the fourth quarter, and you’re behind by five points. It’s fourth down and long yardage for a first down, much less a touchdown. The clock is ticking. Your only chance is to throw a “Hail Mary” pass. Throw it deep, throw it long. The chance your opponent will intercept the ball is literally a toss-up. But it’s possible that, just maybe, one of your teammates will catch it, hang on to it and stumble across the end zone for victory.
That kind of last-ditch effort to pull off a miracle is exciting football. But it’s also an apt description for State Question 744, the best-known proposition on Oklahoma’s Nov. 2 ballot.
SQ744 is the only question on the ballot that came from an initiative petition; all the rest are creatures of the Republican Legislature. The petition was signed by 234,446 voters, nearly 100,000 more than the required 138,970 signatures. State questions on the ballot four years ago needed about 440,000 votes to be approved, so there appears to be strong support for SQ744 among voters.
This is, after all, the people’s government. “All political power is inherent in the people; and government is instituted for their protection, security, and benefit, and to promote their general welfare; and they have the right to alter or reform the same whenever the public good may require it,” reads the Oklahoma Constitution.
The people have every right to set priorities for public officials. If they want public schools to be funded at the regional average, they should fix that bar and force public officials to construct state government around it.
According to SQ744 supporters, Oklahoma is currently dead last and $1,627 per student behind the regional average. We’re also 49th in the nation. The status quo is obviously not working.
SQ744 would mandate that the Legislature must fund public schools at a rate at least equal to the average spent per pupil by the six states surrounding Oklahoma. If the average from the bordering states drops, Oklahoma must spend the amount it spent the year before.
But we also would deal with the Lake Wobegon effect. In Garrison Keillor’s mythical Minnesota community, all the children are above average, a statistical absurdity. As Oklahoma raises its spending, the regional average would also rise. It’s not just a matter of spending $1,627 more per pupil; it will cost more than that, and even more as other states increase their expenditures to avoid losing ground. It would be an interesting dilemma if each of our neighbors committed themselves to spend more than the regional average.
Aren’t we spending enough on education? After all, Brad Henry’s principal campaign promise was to bring Oklahoma up to the regional average in teacher pay. Surprisingly, over the past two years we’ve cut funding for common education by over $200 million.
Will this mean raising taxes? Probably, along with a good stiff kick in the pants toward reform in state government. But that’s not part of the Republican agenda. So, after SQ744 was circulated, legislators put State Question 754 on the ballot. Edmond Sen. Todd Lamb was the primary Senate author of the measure. That proposal would cause a constitutional crisis by banning what SQ744 seeks to accomplish. Check. Checkmate.
Interestingly, despite the quote above, SQ754 includes a provision that claims it cannot be repealed or amended, even if Oklahoma voters unanimously wanted it changed. By doing so, Republican lawmakers seek to strip Oklahoma voters of their fundamental right of self-governance. That’s how little they trust the voters.
The mix of State Questions 744 and 754 on the same ballot guarantees protracted and expensive litigation if they both pass. With one mandate pitted against another, eventually the Supreme Court will have to untangle the mess. Voters would be wise to stand up for their right to govern themselves and save a lot of taxpayer dollars by voting no on State Question 754.
As for 744, it’s a good idea. Republican lawmakers have already strangled Oklahoma education too far. We need to educate our children, to give them a solid foundation on which they can begin their lives, so this state can be a better place in which to live. A decent education is one of the fundamental expectations we should have for state government.
But lab equipment and textbooks and computers cost money. SQ744 should end Oklahoma’s cottage industry of bake sales and car washes to pay for pencils and paper.
This is indeed a “Hail Mary” attempt to score a touchdown in the education game. Lawmakers have had 103 years to get it right, and they’ve failed miserably. It’s time for the voters to make their priorities clear by voting yes on State Question 744, and forcing lawmakers to play the game of government by the people’s rules instead of their own.
WALTER JENNY JR. is an Edmond resident and community activist. He is a former secretary of the Oklahoma Democratic Party.