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In a time when our political debates tend toward increasingly extreme rhetoric, it’s easy to get the impression that government has always been dominated by infighting and dysfunction. Disillusionment with our ability to solve problems through government is one factor contributing to Oklahoma’s low levels of voting and civic participation.1 However, many times in our history we have come together to solve big problems as a state. This section of the report examines some of those accomplishments and the lessons they have for our current challenges.

An end to Dust Bowls

“Fleeing a dust storm” in Cimarron County, OK. Photo by Arthur Rothstein, April 1936. (Library of Congress)

Images of the Dust Bowl are embedded in our collective memory. We think of the Grapes of Wrath’s Joad family fleeing Oklahoma with their whole lives piled into a truck. We think of the grim perseverance written on faces staring out of Dorothea Lange photos. We think of Woody Guthrie’s sweethearts huddled in the dark and preachers taking up a last collection as they say “so long, it’s been good to know yuh” to everything they’ve known.

Thanks to these great artists and writers, individual stories of hardship, despair, and occasionally redemption have made a lasting impact on our understanding of that time and of our state. What’s been less well remembered is the collective response that made sure an event like the Dust Bowl never happened again.

We learned from the mistakes that led to the Dust Bowl. The decade-long drought that hit Oklahoma in the 1930s was made dramatically worse by agricultural practices in wetter years that tilled up too much land and eliminated too much of the vegetation that had been keeping the soil in place. When the wet years ended, massive dust storms left a region of the country including parts of Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, and Colorado almost unlivable.2

In 1933, Congress responded by creating a new federal agency, the Soil Conservation Service (today known as the Natural Resources Conservation Service).3 This agency offered financial incentives for farmers to create more permanent pastures and forests and shared technical advice about agriculture practices that reduce erosion, like terracing, crop rotation, and no-till farming. Thanks to these efforts, soil blowing had fallen 65 percent by 1938.4

Within the state, the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service based out of Oklahoma State University was vital to this effort. Their work has continued in the decades since to help farmers continually improve agriculture and business practices. They provided support for financial management that saved many Oklahoma farms during a crash in commodity prices in the 1980s. More recently, these agencies have helped Oklahomans in towns and cities to learn about home gardening, nutrition, and environmental safety.5 State officials have worked alongside private non-profits, like the Oklahoma Association of Conservation Districts, and individual landowners to spread responsible land and water management practices far and wide.

The efforts by state and federally-funded agencies paid off. In 2008, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that drought conditions in the Oklahoma Panhandle had become even dryer than during the worst years of the 1930s Dust Bowl.6 However, residents did not see a return of the devastating dust storms of that time because of the conservation methods put in place by our collective investment in Oklahoma.

Lessons for today

State government programs have played an important, constructive role in spreading the best practices needed to preserve our common resources of clean air and water and fertile land. These efforts first appeared in response to a historic disaster, but in the decades since the Dust Bowl they have continued to support our agricultural economy, protect our environment, and make sure a disaster of that magnitude never happens again.

This example shows how the role of government to provide education and technical assistance can be effective well beyond K-12 and higher education classrooms. Our economy works better and our quality of life improves when we invest in shared knowledge. Collaboration with non-profits and private landowners were important as well — but it took all three sectors working together to undo the damage that unrestrained private development had caused.

Expanding health care for children and families

For a long time, Oklahoma has had a relatively high poverty rate and a relatively high uninsured rate compared to other states. These statistics are especially bad for our state’s children. In 2015, more than one in every five Oklahoma children (22.2 percent) lived in poverty, compared to just 15.5 percent of working-age adults and 8.4 percent of seniors.7 Our continuing poor rankings as a state might make it easy to conclude that poverty is an intractable problem . However, that conclusion leaves out important ways that we’ve made real progress in improving the lives of the least well-off — especially our children.

In the mid 1990s, nearly one in four Oklahoma children (24.2 percent) were uninsured.8 By the end of that decade, our child uninsured rate had fallen to 16.8 percent and in 2013-2015 it was just 8.7 percent.9 That progress translates to about 145,000 Oklahoma children gaining insurance. Oklahoma’s gains in public insurance coverage of children were the greatest in the U.S.10

How did we do it? It’s a story that combines forward-looking state legislators who leveraged federal funds to expand coverage and state agencies that collaborated to implement nationally-recognized outreach and efficiency improvements, making sure those funds brought the greatest possible benefit to children. The story begins with SB 639, authored by Senator Angela Monson and Representative Billy Mitchell in Oklahoma’s 1997 legislative session. The bill made low-income children and pregnant women eligible for health insurance through the state’s Medicaid program, SoonerCare. The bill was approved by a Democratic-controlled House and Senate and signed by Republican Governor Frank Keating.

At the same time, the federal government made temporarily available 90 percent federal matching funds to improve outreach and administration of Medicaid programs. A Republican Congress and Democratic President Bill Clinton also created the SCHIP program that gave states a higher federal matching rate to cover children in low-income families.11 Now those children that Oklahoma had chosen to cover under SB 639 would cost the state less.

Oklahoma state agencies jumped at this opportunity to make health care easier to access for thousands of low-income mothers and children. The Oklahoma Health Care Authority (OHCA), which administers SoonerCare, launched a collaboration with the other state agencies that work on health, low-income assistance, and child issues to find out what was stopping eligible families from enrolling in coverage. They reduced the application for coverage from 17 pages to 2 and streamlined the process in other ways to reduce wait times.12 With the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, they placed outreach workers across the state to get the word out about benefits available to Oklahoma families.13

“We’ve made sure that being born into poverty in Oklahoma does not mean being denied essential health care.”

Ever since, OHCA has maintained a strong focus on insuring children, and our progress in reducing child uninsured rates continues to be among the best in the nation.14 By this decade, our child uninsured rate of 10 percent had fallen well below our overall state uninsured rate of 16 percent — even while Oklahoma children continue to have higher poverty rates than the state as a whole. We’ve made sure that being born into poverty in Oklahoma does not mean being denied essential health care.

We can expect even greater benefits in the future from this commitment to our children’s health, since research has found the children eligible for Medicaid for more of their childhood become less likely to drop out of high school and more likely to obtain a college bachelor’s degree.15 Indeed, by the current decade Oklahoma’s student dropout rate (2.3 percent) had fallen to less than half of what it was in the 1997-1998 school year (5.5 percent).16 While it’s hard to pinpoint all of the causes behind more kids staying in school, we know that having the health care they need from an early age is one part of this story.

Nationally and in Oklahoma, expansions of public health coverage to more children has given them much better access to primary and preventive care and fewer unmet health needs. On these measures, kids receiving public coverage are faring just as well as privately insured kids.17 And in Oklahoma, we accomplished all this with a SoonerCare program that has lower administrative costs and lower per patient costs than private insurance.18

Lessons for today

Issues of poverty and health can be very frustrating to advocates. Improvements in these big societal issues usually happen on a longer timescale than a political process that barely looks further than the next election. Over the decades, Oklahoma has made profound improvements in the health, education, and overall quality of life of our poorest children. When we fully leverage the funding available to the state and commit to a clear target, we can make big improvements in the lives of Oklahoma families.

Another frustrating phenomenon for anti-poverty advocates in Oklahoma is our continuing low ranking in so many metrics of health and economic well-being compared to other states. It’s true that other parts of the country are doing better on many of these issues, but that doesn’t erase the real progress we have made. The impact of 145,000 newly insured children is felt in every doctor’s visit, every condition that was treated before it turned into a lifelong malady, every child’s life saved, and every family that was kept out of financial ruin due to medical bills. We certainly have more room to improve, but our collective efforts as a state are making a big difference in real people’s lives.

Coming together to improve our schools

Education is Oklahoma’s biggest job. That’s true not only because education makes up the largest slice of the state budget that legislators appropriate every year, or because about 150,000 Oklahomans are employed in the educational services sector — more than any other public or private sector in our state.19 Education is our biggest job because how we educate our state’s children will more than any other factor define our future workforce, economy, and society.

Because education is such a large, important part of what our state does, it also tends to attract the most political attention and debate. Topics like school funding, teacher pay, administrative consolidation, testing, and curriculum make regular appearances on the legislative agenda and in political campaigns. Because we’ve debated these issues so fiercely and for so long, it can feel like we are always rehashing the same problems and not making any progress.

However, recent history shows Oklahomans can come together to address the concerns of all sides with a grand bargain for improving our schools. The historic House Bill 1017 which became law on April 25, 1990, is a model for cutting across partisan divisions to advance powerful reforms.

The state of Oklahoma’s economy and public schools leading up to HB 1017 have some parallels to today. Both state revenues and the economy as a whole had been ravaged by the oil bust of the 1980s. Several years of funding shortfalls had pushed class sizes as high as 40 students in some schools, and average teacher salaries had fallen to second worst in the nation.20 Parents, educators, the business community, and many in the general public were frustrated with the state of public schools, and lawmakers were feeling pressure from these constituents.

In this context that sounds so much like today, Republican Governor Henry Bellmon called a special legislative session, to be convened on August 14, 1989, to address the emergency in education funding. He presented a plan for major tax reforms to increase funding for schools, and he also called for changes in the school funding formula to even out disparities between very rich districts and very poor districts.21

The specifics of Governor Bellmon’s proposal did not get much support from the Legislature. However, legislative leaders did take up the Governor’s call to do something to address education funding. Any education revenue bill would have to originate in the House, so House Speaker Steve Lewis put together a plan for tax increases paired with education reforms, in consultation with education experts and economists. While the special session did not result in a bill, they did create a task force to further develop the plan that had started to come together.22

Governor Henry Bellmon signs HB 1017 at Marshall Elementary School in Tulsa

HB 1017 finally made it to the House floor in November 1990. The Legislature was controlled by a large Democratic majority at the time, but numerous amendments by both Democrats and Republicans were adopted into the bill, and it narrowly passed out of the Legislature with votes from both parties. The bill initially did not have the two-thirds majority for an emergency clause that would have allowed it to go into effect in the coming school year.23

That’s when Oklahoma teachers responded with a walkout that shut down 145 school districts across the state and a rally that brought 20,000 people to the Capitol. The emergency clause finally passed after a deal to allow low-income Oklahomans to file for a refund of HB 1017’s sales tax increase won over five Democratic votes. Reflecting on this experience, former House Speaker Steve Lewis wrote, “It’s fair to say we would not have done what we did without pressure and perseverance from educators, business, professional and civic leaders, parents, students, and many, many citizens throughout the state. We were comfortable with the way things were, until we weren’t.”24

In the years immediately after HB 1017, Oklahoma students scored at or above the U.S. average on national assessments of reading and math, though we’ve fallen behind the nation in more recent years. Class sizes came down, teacher pay went up, and a significant number of school districts consolidated with help from a new voluntary school consolidation assistance fund.25

The year after HB 1017 was approved, an initiative petition to repeal it was defeated, with 54 percent of Oklahoma voters expressing clear support for the tax increases and reforms.26 However, today much of this landmark law has been rolled back. Oklahoma’s top income tax rate has been cut well below what it was just after HB 1017. Amid revenue shortfalls since those tax increases were undone, Oklahoma lawmakers have suspended HB 1017’s mandates to keep class sizes low, update textbooks, and maintain library resources.27 The consolidation assistance fund and some of the other HB 1017 reforms remain in effect today, but in many ways Oklahoma has brought back the problems that HB 1017 attempted to solve.

Lessons for today

The passage of HB 1017 was a rare political consensus building exercise that brought together a Republican Governor, a Democratic-controlled Legislature, professional educators, business leaders, and education reformers. Aligning all of these forces required both direct leadership — as when Governor Bellmon called a special session to force lawmakers to focus on this issue — and transparent, consensus-building processes — as when leaders in the House and Senate allowed debate and numerous amendments to the final bill, including many amendments by members of the opposite party. It also required strong external pressure on lawmakers by a broad range of citizens.

“Recent history shows Oklahomans can come together to address the concerns of all sides with a grand bargain for improving our schools.”

When all of these factors come together, major legislative progress can be achieved. But another lesson of the aftermath of HB 1017 is that political progress requires vigilance, because the forces against any major change rarely disappear after a defeat. While the initial reaction against HB 1017 did not win at the ballot, anti-tax forces came back in 1992 with State Question 640, which made it extremely difficult to pass any new tax increase in Oklahoma by requiring revenue-raising bills to receive three-quarters support in both chambers. Then beginning in the mid-2000s, lawmakers began phasing in tax cuts that undid the new revenues HB 1017 was bringing in to fund education. When economic boom times wore off, the full cost of those tax cuts became apparent, but the current political climate and SQ 640 have prevented Oklahoma from undoing that damage.

Together these lessons show that the question of education funding and reforms versus tax cutting has been the defining issue of Oklahoma politics for decades. It’s an issue with powerful, organized, and mobilized groups on both sides, so it is unlikely to go away anytime soon. Oklahoma voters have tended to shift from one side to another depending on how questions about this issue are framed, so the larger electorate is very much up for grabs. After more than a decade of the anti-tax side ascendant, the time may be ripe for Oklahoma to shift back towards a collective commitment to education.

Go on to Part 2: Our challenge for today >>


  1. David Blatt, December 2014, “Repairing Oklahoma’s Broken Democracy,” Oklahoma Policy Institute, https://okpolicy.org/brokendemocracy/
  2. Timothy Egan, 2006, “The Worst Hard Time,” Mariner Books
  3. Dee Ann Littlefield, July 2008, “Drought Still Has Death Grip on Oklahoma Panhandle.” Natural Resources Conservation Service, https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detail/ok/newsroom/?cid=nrcs142p2_000723
  4. The Nature Conservancy, “U.S. Farm Bill Conservation Programs Have Roots in Dirty Thirties.” https://www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/regions/northamerica/when-the-dust-settled.xml
  5. Fred Causley, “Cooperative Extension Services ,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, http://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=CO053
  6. Dee Ann Littlefield, July 2008, “Drought Still Has Death Grip on Oklahoma Panhandle.” Natural Resources Conservation Service, https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detail/ok/newsroom/?cid=nrcs142p2_000723
  7. Oklahoma Policy Institute, November 16, 2016, “2015 Oklahoma Poverty Profile,” https://okpolicy.org/2015-oklahoma-poverty-profile/
  8. David Blatt, May 2002, “Cuts in Medicaid Eligibility Levels Would be Devastating To Thousands of Working Low-Income Families,” Community Action Project of Tulsa County, https://okpolicy.org/wp-content/uploads/OKMACuts.pdf
  9. The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, “Health Insurance Coverage of Children 0-18,” State Health Facts, http://kff.org/other/state-indicator/children-0-18/
  10. Margo Rosenbach et al, January 2001, “Implementation of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program: Momentum Is Increasing After a Modest Start,” Mathematica Policy Research, Inc, https://www.cms.gov/Research-Statistics-Data-and-Systems/Statistics-Trends-and-Reports/Reports/downloads/rosenbach_2001_5.pdf
  11. J.M. Lambrew, February 2007, “The State Children’s Health Insurance Program: Past, Present, and Future,” The Commonwealth Fund, http://www.commonwealthfund.org/publications/fund-reports/2007/feb/the-state-childrens-health-insurance-program–past–present–and-future
  12. Oklahoma Health Care Authority, September 2005, “A History in Brief…”, http://www.okhca.org/publications/pdflib/PR_brief05.pdf
  13. Ibid
  14. Carly Putnam, November 2015, “Child uninsured rate is a health care bright spot for Oklahoma,” Oklahoma Policy Institute, https://okpolicy.org/child-uninsured-rate-is-a-health-care-bright-spot-for-oklahoma/
  15. Matt Broaddus, July 2015, “Medicaid at 50: Covering Children Has Long-Term Educational Benefits,” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, http://www.cbpp.org/blog/medicaid-at-50-covering-children-has-long-term-educational-benefits
  16. Oklahoma State Department of Education, July 22, 2015, “Student Dropout Report,” http://sde.ok.gov/sde/student-dropout-report
  17. Julia Paradise, July 2014, “The Impact of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP): What Does the Research Tell Us?,” The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, http://kff.org/report-section/the-impact-of-the-childrens-health-insurance-program-chip-issue-brief/
  18. David Blatt, March 2013, “Medicaid Proves Its Worth in Oklahoma,” Oklahoma Policy Institute, https://okpolicy.org/medicaid-proves-its-worth-in-oklahoma/
  19. Gene Perry, August 2015, “Interactive: What the jobs are in Oklahoma,” Oklahoma Policy Institute, https://okpolicy.org/interactive-what-the-jobs-are-in-oklahoma/
  20. Ben Felder, March 2016, “A generation after education reform, Oklahoma is facing familiar issues,” The Oklahoman, http://newsok.com/article/5487704
  21. Steve Lewis, 2017, Untitled, https://okpolicy.org/wp-content/uploads/HB_1017_History.pdf
  22. Ibid
  23. Ibid
  24. Ibid
  25. Kathleen McKean, PhD, March 2013, “Educational Reform in Oklahoma: A Review of Major Legislation and Educational Performance since 1980,” Oklahoma Policy Institute, https://okpolicy.org/educational-reform-in-oklahoma-since-1980/
  26. Oklahoma Policy Institute, “House Bill 1017, What’s That?”, https://okpolicy.org/house-bill-1017/
  27. Gene Perry, October 2014, “Oklahoma continues to lead U.S. for deepest cuts to education,” Oklahoma Policy Institute, https://okpolicy.org/oklahoma-continues-lead-u-s-deepest-cuts-education/