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March 31, 2014

Debate rages over education funding levels in state

OKLA. CITY — Close to 25,000 people waived signs, chanted and cheered along the steps of the Capitol on Monday in hopes of convincing the Legislature to spend more money on education.

“We can, we can, we can do better!” and “Fund us now!” the mass of people chanted.

The rally — organized by the Oklahoma Education Association, the Oklahoma PTA and other groups — was a “fantastic success,” said state PTA President Jeffrey Corbett, a Stillwater resident.

“The crowd was tremendous. They were fired up,” Corbett said.

He relayed reports of highway backups because so many people were trying to attend.

The rally was the largest at the Capitol in more than two decades. Despite the crowds, no major incidents were reported, said Oklahoma Highway Patrol Major Rusty Rhoades.

Participants said they hoped to persuade legislators to reverse what they call years of cuts to public schools.

State appropriations for schools has dropped from more than $2 billion in fiscal year 2009 to about $1.8 billion this year, according to the state Department of Education. Enrollment has increased from about 654,000 to about 681,000 students during the same period.

“We feel like teachers have taken the hit over and over again, and our kids are suffering because of it,” said Terri Roberts, a third-grade teacher from Muskogee.

Across the Capitol lawn, Jasmine Exum, 16, a sophomore at Edmond North High School, sat with three friends.

“We just kind of thought it was wrong to cut school funds,” Exum said.

Though Monday was a school day, the Edmond district allowed students to go to the rally if they had signed permission slips, she said. The four friends rode a school bus to the rally, which Exum said was her first.

Clare Thomas, 72, sat in a chair and held a sign that read “McAlester Public Schools.” She and her two sons are all products of Oklahoma public education, she said.

“I’m not a parent right now. I’m not a teacher. I’m a retired old lady,” Thomas said. “I want to make sure what we received continues in the future.”

Tony Scantlin, an art teacher from Tahlequah, said the state ranks 49th nationally in spending per pupil but second in prison funding.

“There’s never been enough money for schools,” Scantlin said. “I think that money’s there. It’s just not getting where it’s needed.”

Jonathan Small, vice president for policy at the Oklahoma Council of Pubic Affairs, agrees the money isn’t getting where it needs to, but he said there’s more than enough budgeted for schools.

During an interview, Small cited figures that factor cost of living and common education spending, and show Oklahoma actually ranks 28th to 30th in the nation, not 49th.

Oklahoma ranks 10th in the number of school districts and 11th in administrative spending, he said. Less should be allocated to administrative costs, he added, and more to teachers and classrooms.

“It really is a revenue allocation situation,” he said. “Our common education revenues and spending are at an all-time high. We definitely need to do a much better job in how we allocate resources.”

Rep. Mike Turner, R- Edmond, said he was unhappy that some districts canceled classes so that teachers could come lobby legislators. Turner said he supports educators’ rights to lobby, but they should do it on their own time.

Not all teachers supported the message of Monday’s rally, he said, adding that he spoke to constituents who “felt it was a waste of time and resources.”

Turner said he supports “appropriate use” of taxpayer money when funding schools.

“We need to discuss some really ugly words such as administration consolidation,” he said, adding that it’s also time to look at the school funding formula to ensure it’s equitable.

Turner said he did not attend the rally.

Some legislators did, however. Democrats had pledged they would be at the rally to show support for educators.

They included state Senate Minority Leader Sean Burrage, D-Claremore. Burrage pitched a tent outside the Capitol on Sunday, just so he could be among the first to greet educators Monday morning.

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