Passage of a state question that would require Oklahoma to increase its per-pupil expenditure to the average of surrounding states would have drastic effects on core state services, as well as higher education, early childhood programs and the CareerTech system, Gov. Brad Henry said Tuesday in announcing he would serve as an honorary chairman of a group opposed to the measure.
"I care about the future of our state," said Henry, whose term expires in January and who is prohibited from seeking a third term. "And it's so important that I felt I simply had no choice but to get involved."
Approval of State Question 744 also would come at a time the state slowly is recovering from the economic recession, Henry said.
"I have major, major concerns about this proposal," he said. "If State Question 744 passes, it will absolutely devastate the budgets of all other critical areas in state government, and we just simply cannot allow that to happen."
Henry said he will serve as honorary chairman of the One Oklahoma Coalition, a group made up of businesses, unions and farming, health care, banking and transportation groups opposed to SQ 744. He said funding for public schools needs to be increased in Oklahoma, but SQ 744 — to be decided by voters Nov. 2 — is the wrong solution.
"There should absolutely be no debate about whether we need to increase funding for public education — we absolutely do," he said. "But we need to increase funding for public education at all levels — early childhood, K through 12, higher education and CareerTech."
Henry recounted advances made in public education funding during his eight years as governor. He successfully pushed measures for the state to pay health insurance for teachers, increase teacher pay and develop an early childhood education program.
"We have directed more money to the classroom than any other gubernatorial administration," he said, saying he backed measures that created two new revenue sources for education, the lottery and tribal gaming.
Henry said his wife, Kim, a former schoolteacher, is also opposed to SQ 744.
"She values public education and is adamantly in support of raising funding for education, but not if it has to come at the expense of all other critical programs in state government," the governor said.
Some support measure
Tim Gilpin, a Henry appointee to the state Education Board and a member of the Yes on 744 coalition, said he is disappointed by Henry's announcement.
"Brad Henry's first and best campaign promise was to bring Oklahoma up to the regional average in teacher pay," said Gilpin, of Tulsa, who was appointed in 2005 to a six-year term on the Education Board. "I believe that voting yes on State Question 744 will allow us to finally make good on this and other promises made to the children of Oklahoma."
Supporters of the question say the state hasn't funded education to appropriate levels. Oklahoma ranks near the bottom for how much the state spends per student each year, according to figures from the National Center for Education Statistics. Oklahoma spends $7,683 per pupil per year; the national average is $10,297.
Opponents say funding per-pupil spending to the regional average would cost $800 million to $1.7 billion in the three years the funding requirement would be phased in.
SQ 744 would not raise taxes, nor would it provide new funding for the new spending requirements.
"Without a revenue source, it would just absolutely be devastating to every other area of government at a time when we are slowly pulling out of this economic recession," Henry said.
The governor said it was a painful personal decision to help defeat SQ 744 because he has been a strong supporter of public schools throughout his two terms as governor and 10 years as a state senator before that.
"I have many, many friends on the other side of this issue," Henry said. "The easiest thing for me would have been just to sit on the sideline and stay out of this debate. But I think this debate is absolutely important, especially given the dramatic negative consequences of passage of State Question 744. This may be the most important state question that we face in at least 20 years."
But from a policy standpoint, he said, it was "a no-brainer" to oppose SQ 744 because it would tie the hands of future state leaders by amending the state constitution with specific budget mandates that limit their ability to effectively respond to emergencies and address needs in other areas.
About 30 current and past members of the Oklahoma Silver-Haired Legislature ducked out of meetings in the Capitol to hear the governor. Most applauded when he finished his comments.
"This is not the solution," said Jim Spencer, of Shawnee, who served from 2002-06 in the advocacy group for seniors.