Saving public education in Oklahoma

Can You Hear Them Now?

By State Representative David Perryman

Paul Marcarelli, formerly the “Test Man” in the Verizon commercials, is known for the question, “Can you hear me now?” Since that phrase became famous, it has morphed into a question that is used to inquire as to whether a person’s communication is “effective” rather than simply “heard”.

Effective communication is absolutely essential in Oklahoma politics. Lobbyists present one message and constituents another. Therefore, it is important for voters to diligently determine whether their senator, their representative, or even their governor “can hear them now.”

With the 2016 elections just ended, lawmakers need clarification of the message voters sent about education. On the ballot was State Question 779, a proposed sales-tax funded raise for public school teachers and additional higher ed and career tech funding. In the end the measure was rejected by nearly 60% of voters statewide.

On that same ballot were at least 31 current or former teachers, labeled a “teacher caucus” that ran on a pro-public education platform. Only seven of those educators were ultimately elected. The election also shrank the number of Democrats in the State House from 30 to 26.

Does the outcome of the election mean Oklahoma voters believe that teacher salaries are currently sufficient and that the public is no longer pro-public education? What should the Legislature do or not do? Since 2008 (even when oil was more than $100/barrel) the Legislature has not given teachers a raise. In 2015 the Legislature passed House Bill 2244, capping motor vehicle tax revenues to public schools and diverting hundreds of millions of dollars per year away from public education.

In 2015 the Legislature also passed Senate Bill 782, allowing corporate charter schools to be located anywhere in the state, even over the objection of local communities.  Repeatedly since 2005, the Legislature has cut the state’s top personal income tax rate to the tune of $1.022 billion per year, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.

Right now, we could really use that extra $1 billion per year.

Now with the Republican supermajority in the Legislature increasing, pro-voucher supporters are re-energized, hopeful for legislation that will allow education savings accounts (ESA’s) and vouchers to be used to divert public school funds to private schools.

Even the editorial page of The Oklahoman on Nov. 13, 2016, chided this year’s 74.2% Republican supermajority to lead and cautioned that if they did not use the “reprieve” wisely and enact school choice (vouchers and education savings accounts), they may lose seats in the next election cycle.

An article by Ben Felder in the same issue of that newspaper quoted the chairman of a pro-voucher group as saying, “The 2016 election cycle proves it is time to empower families with school choice” after the number of pro-voucher Republican candidates had won elections across the state.

So what is the message for the Legislature and the governor? Do Oklahomans want teacher salaries increased? Did Oklahomans really elect more Republicans to the state House and Senate to take money from public education and divert it to private schools?

Unfortunately, the messages that elected officials receive are often garbled. This session, perhaps like none before, it is imperative that educators, parents, citizens and taxpayers stay engaged and let their elected officials know their feelings about teacher pay and vouchers. Thumbs up or thumbs down, voice your opinion, loudly, clearly and frequently. You can bet that anti-public education lobbyists will be voicing theirs. Know that your elected officials “can hear you now.”

For questions or comments call me at 405-557-7401 or email me at David.Perryman@okhouse.gov.

Representative Perryman is a Democrat from Chickasha.

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