By Alex Cameron, Oklahoma Impact Team
OKLAHOMA CITY -- When Oklahomans go to the polls November 2, they will be casting votes for a new governor, a new member of Congress, and a new attorney general -- races which clearly will influence the state's future.
But even more influential, it seems, will be the votes Oklahomans cast, not on a race, but on a state question.
State Question 744 is about making education a budget priority in Oklahoma. It would amend the state constitution, so that lawmakers would be forced to raise Oklahoma's per-pupil spending average to at least the same level as the regional average.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, Oklahoma currently spends $8,006 annually for each Pre-K through 12 student. That's more than $1,600 less than the $9,633 that's being spent, on average, in Texas, Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico. Oklahoma's per-pupil spending ranks 49th lowest in the nation.
"You hear, 'No money, no money, no money,'" observed Heather Beauchamp, "and we just kind of deal with it."
Beauchamp is a second grade teacher at Northmoor Elementary School in the Moore school district. She says the spending disparity puts Oklahoma teachers at a disadvantage, and that puts Oklahoma students at a disadvantage.
"Last year, I didn't have reading textbooks 'til the middle of the school year," said Beauchamp. "You have to make do with what you have, and you do...but it would really benefit the kids if we had those resources out there for them to use."
Many parents agree.
Dennsecia Robinson wants the best for her son, who's in the third grade in the Oklahoma City school district. She's convinced that State Question 744 is the only way to guarantee that he gets the best, by guaranteeing that education becomes the state's top spending priority.
"It's not just about my son, it's about all the children in the state," said Robinson. "I believe that they all deserve a quality education."
Oklahoma Governor Brad Henry also believes education should be a spending priority for state budget writers.
"In my mind, there should absolutely be no debate about whether we need to increase funding for public education -- we absolutely do," Gov. Henry declared.
But, in the same breath, the governor says 744 is not the way:
"Simply put," Governor Henry told reporters gathered in the Capitol's Blue Room recently, "state question 744 is just the wrong way to go about it."
Henry and other opponents of 744 say its cost is too high.
35 percent of this year's state budget -- $2.4 billion -- is going to common education. According to the non-partisan Oklahoma Policy Institute, phasing in the new spending mandate over three years (as the ballot measure would require) would mean adding $392 million to that $2.4 billion next year, $415 million in FY 2013, and close to $900 million in FY 2014.
Critics of 744 say, because the measure creates no new funding source, those extra dollars would have to come from either a large tax increase, or by shifting large sums of money away from other state agencies.
"We're talking about major cuts across every area of state government," warned Jeff Wilson, spokesman for the One Oklahoma Coalition, a political action committee set up solely for the purpose of defeating SQ 744, "and really reshaping how state government operates, and not in a good way."
744 proponents disagree.
"The reality is," argued Walton Robinson, a spokesman for the Yes on 744 Coalition, "state question 744 does not call for a tax increase, nor does it call for cuts to any other state agencies."
The Yes on 744 campaign claims the extra cost could be covered through a combination of waste reduction measures and growth revenue, as the economy rebounds.
Still, many Oklahomans remain unconvinced.
"I feel that it's gonna bankrupt the state," said Hank Swearingen, a construction maintenance worker for DHS in Lawton.
Swearingen says he is a big supporter of public education, but not if it means jeopardizing his future, and the futures of countless other Oklahomans.
Asked if he thinks approval of 744 would impact his job, Swearingen said, "I think there's a very strong possibility that my facility, and my job could be cut."
For each side, the perceived stakes couldn't be higher -- securing the future of Oklahoma's public education system and helping the thousands of Oklahoma children who lives depend on it versus completely disrupting the budget process and decimating state agencies across the board.
"This may be the most important state question that we've faced in at least twenty years," said Governor Henry.
So important, in fact, that Henry, who's sometimes been referred to as the 'education' governor (his wife is a teacher, he pushed for creation of a state lottery to fund education, and has tried to hold education harmless from budget cuts), agreed to actually lead the campaign to defeat 744.