The Associated Press
OKLAHOMA CITY — A coalition of business and labor groups said Thursday it will work to defeat a ballot initiative to dramatically increase spending on public education that coalition members said would devastate the budgets of many other state services and possibly force tax increases.
Members of the One Oklahoma Coalition, comprised of chambers of commerce, the union representing state workers and other groups, said they support public education but that the Helping Oklahoma Public Education initiative petition would force the state to spend more on public schools while cutting funding for other state agencies.
“We know that we need a well-educated work force,” said Fred Morgan, president and CEO of The State Chamber of Oklahoma. But 41 percent of the state’s budget is already dedicated to elementary and secondary public education, and spending more would erode funding for colleges and universities, vocational-technical schools and other services, he said.
“This is the wrong way to do this,” Morgan said. “We think working together is the best way to improve Oklahoma.”
Supporters of the HOPE petition, also known as State Question 744, said Oklahoma’s public schools are seriously underfunded and that the state ranks 46th out of the 50 states in per-pupil spending on public education.
Information provided by the Yes on 744 coalition indicates per-pupil spending in the 2008-09 school year totaled $8,006 in Oklahoma, lower than surrounding states including Texas, which spent $9,036 per student, New Mexico at $10,009 per student and Arkansas at $10,345.
The HOPE petition would force the state to spend at least $850 million more on public schools over a three-year period to meet the seven-state regional average for per-student spending. The regional average in the previous school year was $9,633, and the national average was $10,193, according to the Yes on 744 coalition.
“Oklahoma invests less in its children’s education than any other state in the region,” Dr. Lisa Connery, a Norman physician, business owner and public school parent, said in a statement released by Yes on 744.
“If we expect our students to excel and be competitive in the new economy, we need to provide them the educational foundation to do so,” Connery said.
But Sterling Zearley, executive director of the 10,000-member Oklahoma Public Employees Association, said the petition’s passage in November could force budget cuts of up to 20 percent at many state agencies, cuts that he said would devastate services.
“It would undoubtedly lead to cuts in health care and mental health services,” Zearley said.
The cuts could mean the loss of $395 million to the Department of Transportation and the elimination of 253 jobs at the Department of Public Safety, Zearley said.
The president of the Oklahoma Farm Bureau, Mike Spradley, said the HOPE initiative “would be very devastating to rural Oklahoma.”
“We can’t afford to pass a ballot issue that has the potential to dramatically raise property taxes to a level that makes it impossible to keep family farms profitable,” Spradley said.
Jeff Wilson, the anti-744 coalition’s campaign manager, said the initiative requires an increase in funding without creating a funding source.
“There’s simply no way to pay for this program,” Wilson said.