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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
/articleid/3455101/1/pictures/913899">Photo - Thousands of Oklahoma teachers skipped school April 16, 1990, to march at the state Capitol for education reforms. The Oklahoma Education Association, which called for the strike, estimated more than 10,000 teachers picketed the Legislature. Photo by Jim Beckel, The Oklahoman Archive
Thousands of Oklahoma teachers skipped school April 16, 1990, to march at the state Capitol for education reforms. The Oklahoma Education Association, which called for the strike, estimated more than 10,000 teachers picketed the Legislature. Photo by Jim Beckel, The Oklahoman Archive

He said the money the tax increase infused into education ended up going toward state compliance with the class size mandate of 20 students per elementary classrooms and a teacher-student load of no more than 140 students in middle and high schools.

"We had to hire new teachers, and the hiring of the new teachers ate up all of the new money,” Singer said. "It effectively took all of the other opportunities that we were trying to promote for innovation and new ideas, and it effectively sucked up all the money.”

There is no data available on what the average class size in Oklahoma is today, although only a few school districts pay fines for exceeding the state mandate.

For Singer, the bill went too far in creating mandates for teachers, and he said the Legislature today should take education in the opposite direction.

"If I had to do it all over again, and I’ve thought about this for 20 years, I wouldn’t change very much about what I asked the Legislature to do, but I would really caution them that less is more,” Singer said. "Give the teachers more resources but fewer rules, more goals but fewer regulations they had to follow.”

The conflict
The senators and representatives, who battled over HB 1017 for 10 months in two special sessions between 1989 and 1990, today remember those days as among the most controversial times in the state.

"I remember teachers packing my office and saying, ‘We could all go home, Harry, if you just change your mind,’” said Howard Hendrick, a Republican senator at the time who cast one of 19 votes against the bill on April 19, 1990.

Hendrick, now the director of the Department of Human Services, laughs about the "new found power” the Republicans received in the 1986 elections with 17 members elected to the state Senate — just enough to prevent bills from being passed as emergency clauses.

"It was contentious to the point where you had to decide, ‘If I don’t get reelected over this, it’s worth it,’” said Sen. Ted Fisher, D-Sapulpa, who voted for the bill.

The bill passed the House with ease but came down to a few key votes in the Senate.

Even after the bill passed and Bellmon signed his brainchild into law, the conflict continued.

A petition drive put the question to the public of whether HB 1017 should remain a law on Oct. 15, 1991, and 54 percent of voters elected not to repeal the reform and taxes.

"I really felt like I was in the middle, witnessing and experiencing something really important for our state, moving us forward in a lot of education areas — both funding and reform — that at the time I felt Oklahoma desperately needed,” Thompson-Taylor said.

The last tax increase
HB 1017 was the last tax increase to be passed.

Two years after HB 1017 passed, the same group of citizens who attempted to repeal the bill got State Question 640 on the ballot. Voters approved the referendum, which requires a three-fourths majority vote in the House and Senate to approve a tax increase or a public vote.

"When civility breaks down, people quit listening to each other, and the quality of dialogue erodes,” Hendrick said of the debates surrounding HB 1017. "The result is we got all this money, but there is probably not the trust of the people.”

Without the ability to levy new taxes or increase taxes, some of those involved with HB 1017 speculated, Oklahoma will continually fall at the bottom when it comes to education funding.

In 2009, House Bill 1017 and the sin taxes — tribal gaming, cigarette and horse track taxes — raised $602.3 million, according to the Office of State Finance.

The estimated revenue shortfall for the 2010 fiscal year is about $700 million.

"It’s almost heartbreaking for me,” Thompson-Taylor said.

"We had made such a giant step forward with 1017, and now some of the funding and some of the reform have not continued as planned because of restrictions such as 640 and because of the economy.”

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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