The right-wing propaganda machine here has started its campaign against the HOPE ballot initiative, which, if passed, would increase per student public school funding to the regional average.
As expected, the argument against HOPE is as old as them Oklahoma hills. It goes like this: Oklahoma is a poor state. No one makes good money here compared to national averages. The cost of living here is low. No sense doing anything different, especially if it involves any of them awful, union-loving teachers.
This is the crude but truthful crux of a Sunday op-ed piece in The Oklahoman. It was written by J. Scott Moody and Brandon Dutcher, who get paid by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, an ultra-conservative policy organization in Oklahoma City. The Oklahoman serves as the quasi-publishing arm of the OCPA.
Before I talk more about the article, here is some background: The HOPE (Helping Oklahoma Public Education) initiative recently conducted what appears to be a successful petition drive to place a schools funding measure on the ballot. The measure, if eventually passed by voters, would require the state to raise annual per student funding to the regional average. Currently, Oklahoma is dead last at $6,900 per student in the region, which also includes Colorado ($8,900), New Mexico ($8,600), Kansas ($8,400), Arkansas ($8,400), Missouri ($7,800) and Texas ($7,400). The regional average is $8,300.
The initiative doesn’t ask for tax increases. It merely requires the state to fund education at the regional average. It’s that simple.
Of course, the OCPA folks and The Oklahoman are against it because, well, it gives more money to education.
So Moody, a OCPA research fellow, and Dutcher, OCPA’s vice president for policy, wrote an article that talks about the effort solely in terms of teacher salaries, not in terms of overall school funding:
In the months ahead, you can bet you’ll be reminded that (for example) teacher pay in Oklahoma ranks near the bottom in 50-state rankings. What you’re not likely to get is some desperately needed context.
The context is that essentially all of us who work in Oklahoma make low salaries when compared to national averages. The article lists all the bad-paying jobs here, from pharmacist to accountant to janitor to nurse to food server. (It’s a depressing list for sure. Read it and weep.) But this is basically okay, Moody and Dutcher say, because Oklahoma has a lower cost of living compared to the national average. All this is, well, “Something to think about next time the discussion turns to underpaid teachers.”
But Moody and Dutcher focus only on teacher salaries when it comes to the HOPE initiative. This is deliberate and disingenuous. The initiative focuses on student funding, not teachers. They know that. Undoubtedly, Moody and Dutcher are using the right-wing tactic of demonization. It’s difficult to demonize children learning to read, but teachers here are always fair game. Gosh, those teachers might want to make more money. Who's next to want higher wages? The pharmacists? The nurses? Listen, the OCPA says, be happy with your low wages and underfunded schools. That's the way it is in Oklahoma. We're low income! "Me, too!" Hurray! (Oh yeah, except for the local rich people the OCPA represents.)
In addition, the cost-of-living argument has worn thin. It paralyzes and prevents effective action to improve the state’s quality of life. Certainly, housing prices are lower in Oklahoma than most of the country, but there are reasons for that. One major reason is underfunded schools, which often lack equipment and textbooks. Home prices, as most everyone knows, are often tied to the quality of a particular school district.
What Moody and Dutcher don’t address, then, are these questions: Is it right that Oklahoma, as they put it, remains “a relatively low-income state”? How do we raise the standard of living if we don’t invest in education? How can we break the cycle?
It seems like a no-brainer that the state needs to invest more in education at all levels. The HOPE initiative is a common sense step in the right direction.
Health insurance premiums for Oklahomans have increased 62 percent over the last eight years, a rise 3.3 times larger than the increase of their earnings, according to a report by Families USA.
“In addition to higher premiums, working families faced higher out-of-pocket health care costs, such as deductibles, copayments, and costs for services that were not covered by their insurance plans,” according to the report. “As a result, health care costs are absorbing an ever-larger portion of family budgets, and it is clear why many Oklahoma families feel worse off economically than they did eight years ago.”
Click here to view the report, which is based on information collected by the U.S. Census Bureau, the Department of Labor, and the Department of Health and Human Services.
The report points out the Oklahoma’s average annual family health insurance premium, paid by employers and employees, went from $6,937 to $11,238, a staggering increase of $4,301.
This is pretty much the story across the country during the last eight years. It’s not surprising the staggering increase came under President George Bush’s administration. Bush and the GOP have done nothing to alleviate the health care crisis in the country. National election polls currently show the GOP will pay a heavy price in the November 4 election for their obvious lack of concern for middle-class families.
Presidential contender Barack Obama has an excellent health care plan that, if passed, would drive down premiums and costs. There is no assurance his plan would pass as proposed, of course, but at least it shifts the current focus from guaranteeing big health insurance companies make money to helping working families obtain adequate and affordable health care. This philosophical change alone will help the vast majority of Oklahomans.
But even as middle-class Oklahoma families struggle to afford health care, it can be easy to forget that those further down the economic ladder, the working poor, face enormous problems accessing health care here.
The Oklahoma Policy Institute, which advocates for Oklahoma’s poor, recently send out an email asking people to help support their efforts to “make Oklahoma a more prosperous, better educated, healthier and more equitable state.” The organization also conducts the best studies related to government policies in the state.
OK Policy asks, “Are you content that one-fifth of Oklahoma's families with children live below the poverty level of $20,650 per year for a family of four? Are you content that only 26 percent of Oklahoma's eighth grade students test as proficient in reading and 33 percent as proficient in math? We suspect you are not, and neither are we.
Right now, according to OK Policy, Kerr Foundation Inc. will match every dollar you donate up to $500. This is an extremely generous offer. Click here to donate.
(The Muskogee Phoenix, the state's fouth-largest newspaper, has endorsed Andrew Rice for the United States Senate. Rice, a state Senator from Oklahoma City, is running against incumbent Jim Inhofe. You can read the endorsement below.)
Senate choice should lean to center
No one takes lightly endorsing a relative newcomer to politics over a long-time senator. Jim Inhofe has been in the U.S. Senate 14 years, and he has a great deal of support in Oklahoma. But Inhofe has not been without controversy.
He may be the ranking minority member on the Committee on Environment and Public Works, but he has not shown a great deal of respect for the environment. He arrogantly blamed the New Orleans flooding from Hurricane Katrina not on inadequate levees, the real cause, but “far-left” environmental ”extremists.” He has adamantly called global warming a great hoax.
There is no doubt that Inhofe maintains a conservative attitude that reflects the position of his constituent base, but the extremist statements he has made throughout his career on many subjects hurts his credibility and the state’s image despite whatever positive contributions he has made while in Congress. And extremism, whether to the right or left, does not promote good government policies or government that benefits everyone.
That is why Andrew Rice is a better candidate in the U.S. Senate race.
Rice has a more even-handed and rational approach to the issues and problems we are experiencing. He has gained a experiential world view as a missionary, working with rural development projects in Asia, that would serve him well in the Senate.
Rice also has demonstrated in the state Senate a willingness to work with others rather than sticking to a rigid ideology. Oklahoma would lose the seniority Inhofe has gained if Rice were elected, and that would be a tough loss. But there is something to gain with Rice as well.