Ernest Istook says state leaders can block OEA suit

Tuesday, January 24th 2006, 8:42 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- Republican U.S. Rep. Ernest Istook, who is running for governor, argued Tuesday that the state Legislature could take action this session to block a school funding lawsuit already filed by a teacher group.

At a Capitol news conference, Istook said the Oklahoma Education Association had "attacked democracy" with its legal action and it was "time for democracy to attack back."

He said the OEA suit could essentially be undone if the governor and legislative leaders would get behind a constitutional amendment that makes it "crystal clear that education funding is decided only by the people and their elected officials and the courts cannot usurp that authority."

He said the proposed constitutional change could be sent to voters this year, predicting it would easily be adopted.

Asked about the legality of retroactively enacting a constitutional change that would affect a pending lawsuit, Istook said it would be legal because the OEA was talking about "future funding."

Democratic Gov. Brad Henry had expressed disappointment about the OEA lawsuit, but Istook said "hand-wringing and timid words don't fix the problem."

Paul Sund, spokesman for Henry, said the governor would like to stop the lawsuit, but it was not clear whether "after-the-fact legislation would have any real impact on the situation."

"We're glad he's finally engaged, but his latest idea will need more legal review to determine whether it is a feasible remedy or just a publicity stunt," Sund said of Istook's comments.

Senate President Pro Tem Mike Morgan, D-Stillwater, one of the lawsuit's named defendants, said he would like to block the litigation but doesn't know if that is possible. He said he would defer further comment because he had not seen details of Istook's proposal.

Istook said the lawsuit could lead to higher taxes to increase education funding.

He was joined by officials of the Association of Professional Oklahoma Educators, a rival of the OEA, which warned the lawsuit could lead to school consolidation.

Ginger Tinney, APOE executive director, said OEA membership had been shrinking and the lawsuit was "an act of desperation" on the part of the organization's leaders.

She said OEA members should send their leadership a message by dropping their membership in the organization and also in the National Education Association, which has backed similar suits in other states.

Tinney said the OEA was making impossible funding demands on the state.

She said lawmakers had "been funding education more and more over the last few sessions and we're grateful for that."