THE populist leanings of Oklahoma's founders birthed a state constitution whose length and obsessions with minutia (including, we kid you not, the flash test for kerosene) have rightly been mocked at times.
However, the Oklahoma Constitution's language regarding school funding has saved citizens from judicial activism that could have forced massive tax increases and seized policy control away from voters. Other states, including two of our neighbors, haven't been as fortunate.
In Texas, a judge has declared that state's school funding system to be unconstitutional, saying it doesn't provide for a fair and efficient system. It's the second time in 10 years courts have ordered an overhaul of Texas school finance.
In January, a three-judge panel ruled Kansas was unconstitutionally underfunding education needs and ordered a $400 million increase. That echoed a 2005 Kansas Supreme Court decision mandating an extra $290 million for public schools.
Stateline.org notes the Colorado Supreme Court is expected to soon review a district court ruling that Colorado's funding system is “unconscionable” and doesn't meet the state constitution's requirements for a “thorough and uniform” education system. If Colorado loses, billions more in spending may be required.
The National Conference of State Legislatures reports 10 states have school finance challenges under way; four others have recently concluded legal challenges. Sadly, this is hardly a new trend. Since 1973, all but five states have experienced school funding lawsuits.
Typically, those filing lawsuits in recent years have based their arguments on “adequacy.” In this regard, Oklahoma's founders did taxpayers a favor, because our constitution merely declares, “The Legislature shall establish and maintain a system of free public schools wherein all the children of the State may be educated.” Decisions about what funding level is “adequate” are largely left to state lawmakers, who have developed a funding formula designed to reduce rich/poor disparities. This means control ultimately is in the hands of all Oklahomans through the democratic process and ballot box.
In 2006, the Oklahoma Education Association sued the state, claiming school funding was inadequate. The teachers' union sought a court-mandated increase of $1 billion in annual education funding and $3 billion more for capital improvements. A district court judge tossed the lawsuit, saying lawmakers must determine how much is spent on education.
While many citizens may support increased school funding, they should nonetheless cheer the recent failure of school funding lawsuits in Oklahoma. Citizens today have the ability to make school funding a priority by pressuring their legislators, voting for candidates who advocate increased funding, or even running for office themselves if they feel strongly about the issue.
No one should want judges unilaterally directing state fiscal policy at the behest of special-interest groups. Those who support increased school appropriations would likely object if it meant pedophiles were free to lurk near school playgrounds because education increases forced budget cuts at state prisons. Given that Oklahoma has a balanced budget requirement, no spending decision occurs in a vacuum. Trade-offs are unavoidable.
Too often, education funding lawsuits represent the pursuit of political goals by undemocratic means. Oklahomans should be thankful our state constitution's language has impeded those end runs on democracy and ensured voters maintain the power to make political decisions in the political arena.