Wednesday, June 27, 2007

School Consolidation Battle Brewing

By Senator Jay Paul Gumm, D-Durant
Hello again, everybody! Even though the Legislature is adjourned for the year, events happen that will have an affect on issues important to the people I represent.

On education, there is a “good news-bad news” story for the people of rural Oklahoma and the children who attend rural public schools. The good news comes from the Oklahoma Supreme Court, which struck down an initiative petition that had the potential to devastate many small school districts.
The proposal, led by a failed candidate for governor, is called the “65 percent solution.” It would require 65 percent of school operational funding be spent in the classroom.

On the surface that sounds like a good idea; most of the money we spend on schools should go to instruction and, in fact, it does. Despite its name and optimistic claims it would put millions more into classrooms, the “65 percent solution” was nothing but another “smoke and mirrors” plan to look good rather than do good.

The “65 percent solution” would have weakened local school boards and voters, taking away their power to determine what is best for their school districts and the children who depend on them for an education. Small districts unable to comply with the “65 percent solution” would have been forced to close or consolidate, reducing opportunities for children in rural Oklahoma.

The state Supreme Court made the right decision to disallow the petition and keep it off the 2008 general election ballot. Parents and school boards can breathe a sigh of relief because the power to make important funding decisions for their schools remains, for now, in their hands.

That, however, brings me to the “bad news.” Forced school consolidation will continue to be considered by the Legislature. Republican leadership of the Oklahoma House of Representatives continues to kill my constitutional amendment to end forced school consolidation despite strong bipartisan support in the Senate.

Earlier this year, the Republican Speaker of the House launched the “100 Ideas” initiative, inviting Oklahomans to make suggestions about our second century. An enormous amount of the “new ideas” under “education” includes consolidating school districts.

They parrot the proposal of another failed candidate for governor who suggested we have one school district per county. Predictably, all of the consolidation ideas come from individuals in large cities.

Clearly, this is shaping up to be one of the biggest political battles over the next several years. The choice is simple: do we abandon Oklahoma children who live in rural areas? My answer is a resounding “no,” and I will continue to fight for all our children.

Next session, I will re-introduce my constitutional amendment to end forced school consolidation. House Republicans have already shown would force schools to consolidate, but I have hope they one day will realize this power belongs to the people of Oklahoma and not to politicians like them.

Thanks again for reading the “Senate Minute,” have a great week, and may God bless you all.

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