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After ’90 school reform, Oklahoma again falls behind

BY MEGAN ROLLAND Modified: April 19, 2010 at 7:32 am •  Published: April 19, 2010
Thousands of teachers walked out of their Oklahoma classrooms during this week in 1990, storming the state Capitol in support of an education reform bill heralded by Democrats as a step away from underfunded classrooms and underpaid educators.

"It was an exciting time. I’ve never done anything like that before or since then,” said Jene McCasland, a 28-year elementary teacher in Norman Public Schools. "I think maybe we did something good.”

Twenty years later, House Bill 1017 has collected $7.2 billion in taxes specifically for education. It mandated smaller class sizes, kickstarted the state’s prekindergarten program and equalized state-aid contributions between "rich” and "poor” school districts.

But despite the immediate infusion of cash for teacher salaries and smaller class sizes — much to the delight of McCasland and her peers — the state’s education funding has remained among the lowest in the nation.

In 1998 — a year marked by the state’s recession — Oklahoma ranked 47th among states for average teacher salaries and 46th for per-pupil expenditures, according to the National Education Association database.

"The funding was certainly necessary,” said Carolyn Thompson- Taylor, who as the representative for Norman led both House education committees. "Unfortunately, we are there again. But 20 years ago, we needed to make an investment in education.”

In 2009, Oklahoma ranked 48th with an average teacher salary of $43,846 compared with the national average of $54,319. The national average in per-pupil spending was $10,190, but in Oklahoma it was $8,006, putting the state 46th in the nation again.

State schools Superintendent Sandy Garrett, who worked with then- Gov. Henry Bellmon for the reform as education secretary, said she never would have run for the office of state superintendent without HB 1017.

"When you’re the bottom right now in funding, I think without 1017 we would be 50th or even 51st with Washington, D.C.,” Garrett said. "If we had not done that early, obviously we would be very far behind.”

Garrett said the bill specifically set aside money to fund a $9,000 increase over five years in the starting salaries of first year teachers, something that didn’t make a dent in the average salaries of teachers throughout the state.

The bill levied a half-cent sales tax, a 1 percent corporate tax and a personal income tax increase. In 1990, the new taxes raised $230 million for the 1017 fund. In 2009, the taxes raised $602.3 million, including several new taxes that voters approved in 2004 on items such as tobacco and tribal gaming.

Reform, results
While the funding portion of HB 1017 was important for Thompson-Taylor and Garrett, both agreed the reform portions of the bill were its strengths.

The bill developed the first statewide curriculum to be taught in every school.

"Before that, every teacher in the state was in the classroom doing their own thing,” Garrett said.

She said the curriculum created a model for teachers to follow. The bill also developed a testing program for every student based on that curriculum.

"We began measuring what the state taught and being able to report to the public what was happening through the newly formed office of accountability,” Garrett said. "That really put Oklahoma in a perfect position along with two other states — Kentucky and South Carolina — for the No Child Left Behind Act, which came along a decade later.”

George Singer headed up Task Force 2000 that in October 1989 presented a set of recommendations to lawmakers that served as the foundation for HB 1017.

Singer, of Tulsa, said the only thing the bill "did absolutely perfectly” was establish a formula to equalize state aid, so "poor” districts with small revenues from local districts receive the most state aid while "rich” districts with a robust local tax base receive the least.

"In its first year of existence the funding in Oklahoma reached almost perfect equity, and the worst funded district got well over 99 percent state funding,” Singer said.

But Singer said there was a fatal flaw in the bill that worked to counteract the funding and curriculum changes. Education Station Blog

House Bill 1010


• Personal income tax: $3.37 billion

• Corporate income tax: $728.45 million

• Sales tax: $2.89 billion

• Use tax: $206.36 million

• Other voter approved contributions (tribal gaming, tobacco, horse track, license tags, estate and gas taxes): $5.14 million

• Total: $7.7 billion


Average teacher salary:


• Oklahoma: $23,070

• U.S.: $31,367


• Oklahoma: $43,846

• U.S.: $54,319

Average per-pupil expenditure:


• Oklahoma: $3,202

• U.S.: $4,604


• Oklahoma: $8,006

• U.S.: $10,190

22 districts paid $197,783 in fines for exceeding classroom size limits set out in HB 1017. An unknown number of districts also claimed exemption from the class size mandate for financial reasons.

Between 1998 and 2010, 15 school districts closed or consolidated, leaving the state with 532 districts.

House Bill 1017 Timeline


• April: School districts throughout the state hold "fire drills” simultaneously, having teachers walk out in support of better funding.

• May: Gov. Henry Bellmon creates Task Force 2000 to study educational reform.

• July: Bellmon calls a special session to deal with "an emergency” in education funding.

• August: Special session convenes defeating 96-1 Bellmon’s initial proposal of a $292 million surcharge on state income tax and the elimination of property tax.

• September: George Singer and Task Force 2000 begin their study of education reform.

• November: Singer’s recommendations are incorporated into a tax increase and reform bill when a second special session meets.


• February: The House approves a $230 million tax increase known as House Bill 1017.

• April 11: The Senate passes the bill but is five votes shy of an emergency clause which would make the bill take effect immediately, creating a hurdle for repeal efforts that were sure to come.

• April 16: Thousands of teachers walk out of their classrooms for a five day rally at the Capitol.

• April 19: The emergency clause passes the Senate, forcing any referendum repeal attempt to be worded in a negative manner.


• October: Voters defeat a referendum to repeal House Bill 1017 with 428,204 people voting to keep the tax increase and 361,293 people voting to repeal the bill.


March: Voters approve State Question 640 requires a statewide vote on any tax increase that fails to receive a super-majority in both the House and Senate.


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