Thousands Rally for State Education Funding at Oklahoma Capitol (Public Radio Tulsa)

By Matt Trotter

Thousands of educators, parents and students rallied for more public school funding at the state capitol today.

Early estimates pegged the crowd around 25,000, and it looked every bit as large. Several educators and others spoke, but the standout was Warner Public Schools senior Erika Vinson, who compared her education to being a flower tended seed to blossom by master gardeners.

“When I look around, I don’t see them being helped the way they should be,” Vinson told the crowd. “Instead, I see them being given more flowers to look after and higher standards to attain, with fewer resources and drought-like conditions.”

Supporters continued streaming in as the hour-long rally went on, many of them slowed down by heavy traffic around the capitol. Those in attendance circled the building before going in to speak with lawmakers, but Republican Rep. Mike Turner of Edmond said education is already a legislative priority, so today’s crowd wasn’t a problem. 

“Seeing teachers up here and parents and kids, that just serves as another reminder, but it doesn’t put any undue pressure on us,” Turner said.

Turner said lawmakers will consider ways to find more money for education, but he also questioned how state funds are being used in public schools and said it was “unfortunate” that public employees attended the rally.

Rep. Lee Denney (R-Cushing) was at the rally to offer a possible solution to the funding problem. When Oklahoma voters rejected a fuel tax hike to fund repairs for deteriorating roads, legislators stepped in with a solution: A law to fund those projects on top of regular appropriations.

Denney said it works and can be used in a new way.

“In House Bill 2642, we would fund our state’s public schools in a manner similar to that roads project,” she said.

Denney’s bill would boost funding $57.5 million a year for the next 10 years — another $575 million directly to schools. There is a catch, however.

“We have to ensure that our revenue grows every year by at least 1 percent for the trigger to take effect, so there is a trigger on this bill,” Denney said. “The typical growth in our economy is 3 percent, so I feel very confident in the 1 percent growth.”

Other solutions proposed at the rally came from the Oklahoma Policy Institute. Analysts there say allowing horizontal and deep well drilling tax credits to expire or resuming collection of the franchise tax would help fund schools.

While funding was certainly the biggest concern at the rally — rally emcee Floyd Cox led the crowd in a chant of “Fund us now” — vouchers are a hot topic around the capitol, and Brandon Dutcher with conservative think tank Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs says privatization would create needed competition and fulfill the state’s obligation to provide public education.

“We’re going to provide healthcare, but you can use your Medicaid at a private hospital. We’re going to provide food stamps, but you can use it at a private grocery store,” Dutcher said. “The same concept should apply to education: We’re going to pay for it and provide it, but you can go wherever you want.”

Kellyville Board of Education Vice President John Tuttle and those attending the rally, however, didn’t agree.

“I believe education is a civil right and the cornerstone of our democracy,” Tuttle said, his words met with cheers. “We can no longer sit idly by while people continue to enact laws that are designed to privatize education.”

Rally speakers also expressed concerns about the state’s teacher evaluation and A–F grading systems.

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