Fight over school funding to be big issue in Oklahoma fall vote

By SEAN MURPHY Modified: June 22, 2010 at 10:18 am •  Published: June 20, 2010

A showdown involving some of Oklahoma's biggest political heavyweights is brewing, with major money flowing into the campaigns of both sides, but it doesn't involve a candidate on the November ballot.

The battle is over funding for common education, and it pits the state and national teacher unions against business and industry, agriculture groups and the powerful transportation lobby.

State Question 744, also known as the Helping Oklahoma Public Education, or HOPE, initiative would amend the state constitution to require the state within three years to meet the regional average of per-student spending in surrounding states.

The plan is drawing fierce resistance from a coalition that includes chambers of commerce, the Oklahoma Farm Bureau, the transportation industry and the state workers union. Dubbed the One Oklahoma Coalition, the group already has raised close to $500,000 and plans to launch a vigorous media blitz in the months leading up to the Nov. 2 vote.

"You are going to see a very significant, well-financed effort to defeat this measure,” said Crystal Drwenski, a spokeswoman for the coalition. "The problem is this state question, should it pass, is so devastating to so many components of state government.”

In April, the Association of General Contractors dumped $250,000 into the campaign, and another $195,000 in contributions were received from several chamber groups and the Oklahoma Farm Bureau, according to campaign finance records.

These groups contend the price tag on the education initiative, estimated at between $850 million and $950 million, would require either massive cuts to state programs, a tax increase or some combination of both.

But supporters say drastic action is needed to improve school funding in the state, which ranked 49th among the 50 states and the District of Columbia, according to a report released last month by the National Center for Education Statistics.

"The reality is we cannot wait to prepare our kids for the jobs in the new economy,” said Walton Robinson, a spokesman for the Yes on 744 campaign. "Right now we are dead last in the region (in per-student funding), and our kids are in a battle with kids from Arkansas, Texas and other states in the region for jobs.