Elizabeth Smith, Ph.D., is the planning director for the Yale National Initiative at the University of Tulsa, a partnership between TU, Tulsa Public Schools, and Yale University to strengthen teaching in Tulsa schools.
“The Legislature shall establish and maintain a system of free public schools wherein all the children of the State may be educated. … The Legislature shall, by appropriate legislation, raise appropriate funds for the annual support of the common schools of the State…”
The Oklahoma State Constitution, Article 13
An Oklahoma native, I moved to Fayetteville, Arkansas in 2001 to attend the University of Arkansas. I transitioned from being a student to a resident of Arkansas and began a career in higher education which included research on PreK-12 schools. Studying school funding in Arkansas, I investigated the transformation that took place in statewide education following Lake View School District no. 25 v. Huckabee, one in a series of Arkansas Supreme Court decisions that contributed to an overhaul of the school funding system. Moving back to Oklahoma in 2015, colleagues have frequently asked me, “Why are Arkansas schools funded so much better than Oklahoma schools?” My short answer is always: “Lake View.” Yes, this is an oversimplification considering that Arkansas and Oklahoma are very different in terms of population, major industries, and history. However, Lake View was the turning point for school funding in Arkansas, and similar cases have been turning points in many other states.
Judicial involvement in state school funding is not unusual. Rather, adversarial legalism (aka, policymaking through court decisions) has been a path for improved school funding in 29 states. Recently, the Kansas Supreme Court declared their state funding system unconstitutional and gave the state legislature until June 30 to create a new funding formula. Oklahomans have utilized the court system twice before to pursue adequate school funding; is it time to try adversarial legalism again?
In 1987, the Oklahoma Supreme Court upheld the school funding system, deferring to the Oklahoma Legislature on how to fund schools. In 2007, the Oklahoma Education Association sued the state saying that the Legislature had failed to provide adequate funding for education in violation of the state Constitution. The plaintiffs (the Oklahoma Education Association, representing three school districts) requested that the Court declare the funding system to be unconstitutional and order the Legislature to redesign the school funding formula to provide adequate funding. The plaintiffs also requested that the Court remain involved in overseeing the school funding system until it was adequate. These requests mirrored the process that had just completed in Arkansas where the state oversaw the redesign of school funding for five years until declaring it adequate and equitable in 2007.
Moving back to Oklahoma in 2015, colleagues have frequently asked me, “Why are Arkansas schools funded so much better than Oklahoma schools?” My short answer is always: “Lake View.”
In the 2007 case, the Oklahoma Supreme Court determined that the OEA did not have the standing to pursue the case and that they failed to demonstrate that Oklahoma students were being harmed by the lack of adequate funding. The Court also asserted that school funding was the charge of the Legislature alone and not open to evaluation by the judicial branch.
What has happened in Oklahoma since 2007 to provide optimism that using adversarial legalism in 2017 might result in a different outcome? First, there has been significant turnover on the Oklahoma Supreme Court with four of the nine justices being appointed since 2008. Three of the new justices were appointed by former Governor Brad Henry, a Democrat, while current Governor Mary Fallin, a Republican, has appointed one. There may be no correlation between the political affiliation of the Governor who appointed the justices and their likelihood to decide in favor of school funding, though, as seven of the nine justices on the 2007 court were appointed by governors who were Democrats. Yet, there has been enough change on the court to consider that there is potential for a different outcome.
The significant cuts in state funding for education in Oklahoma could also contribute to a climate favorable for overturning the current school funding system. Since the last Oklahoma Supreme Court decision on school funding in 2007, the state has cut funding for schools by 26.9 percent, the deepest cuts in the nation. As of December 2016, the state Board of Education has approved 1,082 emergency teaching certificates for teachers who do not have traditional teaching credentials because Oklahoma has a shortage of teachers. This is a symptom of low teacher pay in Oklahoma, as exemplified by a recent survey in Tulsa showing that the top reason teachers cite for leaving is low pay. If the Oklahoma Supreme Court with its four new members can see past the separation of powers argument, it will find compelling evidence that funding for Oklahoma schools is inadequate.
After the failed attempt to raise teacher pay through SQ 779 and reports that support is waning for legislating teacher pay increases, Oklahomans’ options for improving school funding are limited. It is time to try pursuing adequate school funding in Oklahoma through the courts again.
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