Legal decision adds rancor to 2006 legislative session

Saturday, January 14th 2006, 6:38 pm
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ The decision of the Oklahoma Education Association and three school districts to sue lawmakers for underfunding schools will add rancor to what already promised to be a nasty election-year session of the Oklahoma Legislature.

Political charges have been flying for months in legislative news releases, mostly from Republicans trying to keep their new majority in the House and take control of the Senate for the first time ever. The session convenes on Feb. 6.

Both Democratic and Republican leaders reacted with disdain _ and in some cases surprise _ after the lawsuit was announced last week by educators who argue the Legislature is violating the constitution by underfunding schools.

Democratic Gov. Brad Henry, who was not named in the lawsuit, said he had championed more investments in education and was ``very disappointed'' the OEA had chosen to pursue the suit.

Senate President Pro Tem Mike Morgan, D-Stillwater, said the OEA had decided to ``follow the advice of a national teacher's union and take this issue to court in adversarial manner rather than being willing to continue to work to improve Oklahoma's schools.''

House Speaker Todd Hiett, R-Stillwater, said he was surprised the OEA would sue after leaders of both parties worked out a record school funding plan last session. He called it ``a clearly counter-productive move.''

Leaders say the lawsuit could color various education funding proposals and further strain efforts to adequately fund other important areas of the budget, such as health care, roads and public safety.

Some lawmakers have warned the legal move would lead to school consolidation, as it did in bordering Arkansas, where sales taxes were eventually increased to raise money for schools.

Plaintiffs say a tax increase is not necessary to adequately fund Oklahoma schools.

The Oklahoma suit was filed two days after Senate Democrats announced a plan to increase public school funding by $195.6 million and raise the pay of teachers by $3,000 in an effort to accelerate Henry's proposal to reach the regional average in salaries.

In an interview, OEA President Roy Bishop said lawmakers should have seen the suit coming, adding it was no secret among the association's members.

Bishop said the OEA General Assembly approved a plan to study possible legal action three years ago after he became president of the organization and authorized funding for a lawsuit two years ago.

He said the action is ``member-led and member-driven. I am just a representative of those people who have decided to move this forward.''

The lawsuit is the result of a buildup of frustration by education supporters since statehood to get adequate funding for schools, Bishop said.

But the catalyst for the suit is a relatively recent drop in the percentage of state General Fund money that goes to public schools. According to the OEA, schools received about 39 percent of those funds in 1990, but the percentage is now 35.7 percent.

``To be perfectly honest, if we had been able to maintain that 39 percent of the budget, in reality, the lawsuit would probably not have been filed,'' Bishop said.

The lack of financing comes as schools are being required to meet a series of unfunded state and federal mandates, many of them tied to student testing.

One rural school district _ Foyil _ and two suburban districts, Western Heights and Jenks, joined the OEA in filing the suit in Oklahoma County District Court.

The suit argues state schools are underfunded by $1 billion and contents it would take an additional $3 billion to meet the infrastructure needs of state schools.

Bishop said his group applauds the recent funding plan of Senate Democrats, ``but a lot of their program is about salaries. Obviously we are excited about that...but this is not just about salaries.

``This is about kids all over the state and substandard buildings and kids in overcrowded classrooms and kids that have to have fundraisers just to have basic supplies. That's not right.''

The OEA official said the Oklahoma lawsuit is not about school funding equity, as the Arkansas litigation originally was, but deals with ``underfunding'' and the amount of money per student that it would take to adequately fund the system.

He said it would not lead to school consolidation, calling those warnings ``scare tactics.''

As far as the governor's reaction, Bishop that it is ``understandable that he would be disappointed, but he knows that we have to do what we feel is right and in the best interest of Oklahoma children.''

He said no one ``is disputing the fact that our schools are underfunded and there are tremendous problems out there.''