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, resultsWhile 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. 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 conflictThe 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 increaseHB 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.”
House Bill 1010
20 YEARS OF REVENUES • 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
EDUCATION FUNDINGAverage teacher salary: 1990
• Oklahoma: $23,070
• U.S.: $31,367 2009
• Oklahoma: $43,846
• U.S.: $54,319 Average per-pupil expenditure: 1990
• Oklahoma: $3,202
• U.S.: $4,604 2009
• Oklahoma: $8,006
• U.S.: $10,190
CLASS SIZES IN 200922 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.
SCHOOL CONSOLIDATIONBetween 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. 1990
• 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. 1991
• 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. 1992 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.