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Oklahoma House Raises $200 Million for Schools

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Oklahoma City--After struggling for nearly two weeks over such politically explosive issues as tax increases and school consolidation, the Oklahoma House last week approved an extensive education-reform package.

To fund the bill's initiatives--which ranged from early-childhood programs and increased teacher salaries to extensive curriculum revisions--the House voted to increase corporate, personal, and sales taxes by $200 million a year.

Before passing the legislation, however, the House voted to significantly reduce both the scope and the funding of the original version of the measure. Observers said the effort to scale back the proposal reflected at least in part members' concerns that they would be punished at the polls next year for backing a tax hike.

The Senate is expected to take up the bill this week.

The potential political costs of changing school finance were already clear this summer, when Gov. Henry Bellmon proposed that a new 1.9 percent "school tax" on the value of all finished goods and services replace property taxes as source of school revenue.

But the legislature in August flatly rejected Governor Bellmon's proposal, instead appointing a citizens' committee to make recommendations for reform and revenue changes.

The panel unveiled its proposals late last month, and the legislature began a special session to consider them Nov. 6. (See Education Week, Nov. 1, 1989.)

The committee estimated the cost of its proposals at $2.7 billion over five years.

Governor Bellmon came out early in support of the package and predicted there would be Republican support for the measures.

But many of his fellow Republicans disagreed. Representative Joe L. Heaton, the House minority leader, and legislators of both parties said the tax increase was controversial. Many said they wanted to avoid being labeled either a tax hog or an education foe.

Republicans found themselves in a particularly sensitive position because their Governor was forcefully advocating passage of the reforms and taxes.

Mr. Bellmon has said he will not run for re-election in order to concentrate on reorganizing state government and reforming education.

As a result, Republican legislators said, the Governor does not run the political risk they would in approving a tax increase while the state is still struggling from the collapse of the oil industry.

But Democrats said they are feeling pressure, too, since their support is crucial to passage of the bill.

"I wonder if the special session wasn't some kind of backhanded way for the Governor to help his party-mates in next year's election," said one Democratic House member.

Observers said that Speaker of the House Steve Lewis took perhaps the biggest risk by sponsoring the bill. They noted that the stakes were high for Mr. Lewis, both because this is his first year as Speaker and because he is considering running for governor.

On the session's opening day, George Singer, the Tulsa oil man who headed the task force, urged the legislature to adopt the proposal despite the pressures to do otherwise.

"Do not abdicate your leadership--do what is right," he said. "If we do not find a way to create a measurably superior system of elementary and secondary education, we may well be relegated to a kind of domestic Third World status."

The House education committee quickly approved the 150-page bill, under the direction of its chairman, Carolyn Thompson, a former teacher who runs the committee chambers much like a classroom.

But the committee first added nearly 30 amendments, some of which proved to be controversial.

The most difficult debate centered around a proposal to dramatically consolidate school districts.

Mr. Heaton proposed an amendment that instructed the department of education to devise a plan to reduce the number of districts in the state from more than 600 to 300.

He said he envisioned not only mergers of smaller districts, but also the division of some of the larger districts.

But another amendment, narrowly approved by the committee, called for reduction of the number of districts to 77--one for each county.

That proposal was sponsored by Sid Hudson, a Republican. "I don't see what is so magical about the number 300," Mr. Hudson said. "If we are going to talk about consolidation, then I want to really discuss it."

While some Republicans said a school-consolidation provision would fill a gap left in the task force's report, others said they did not favor the deep reduction proposed by Mr. Hudson.

Many educators also opposed the mergers, arguing that they should be determined on merit, not to meet an arbitrary number.

Once the bill reached the House floor, the consolidation proposal was changed back to match the task force's recommendations that mergers be based on merit and that financial incentives be offered to encourage mergers.

Republicans on the education committee were successful in deleting a provision that would have required full-day rather than half-day kindergarten and a provision that would have made prekindergarten a mandatory offering in all school districts.

Also deleted at the committee level was a provision that would have required parents who teach their children at home to register them with the state.

But attempts to weaken the task force's recommendations on a due-process system to replace teacher tenure were thwarted.

The proposal would eliminate tenure, but give all teachers facing dismissal due-process rights. Critics of the provision, including Mr. Heaton, argued that it actually expands tenure protections, even though it does not use that term.

The bill also provides for a $6,000 salary increase for teachers over 5 years, and mandates that salaries for chemistry, math, physics, and foreign-language teachers be at least 75 percent of the salaries districts pay their top athletic coaches.

On the floor, the proposal to extend the school year by 10 days was deleted, trimming $72 million a year from the cost of the package.

The revenue measure in the bill that faced the strongest opposition called for extending the existing 4-cent sales tax to services not previously covered, such as advertising and plumbing.

The bill also included a 10 percent increase in the personal income tax and a 2 percent increase in corporate taxes.

The total package was projected to raise $235 million a year.

The service industry mounted an intense lobbying effort against the proposed increases, and the state's largest newspaper, The Daily Oklahoman, ran two front-page editorials against them.

The tax proposals survived the House revenue and taxation committee. Facing strong opposition on the House floor, however, sponsors were forced to alter them substantially in order to win final passage.

Mr. Lewis worked out a compromise under which the tax on services was dropped in favor of increasing the current sales tax from 4 cents to 4.5 cents. The corporate-tax increase also was cut to 1 percent.

The final package is expected to raise about $200 million in additional revenue. But legislators pointed out that elimination of full-day kindergarten, prekindergarten programs, and extension of the school year would cut the total cost of the reforms.

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