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Reform Bill Clears Its Final Legislative Hurdle in Oklahoma

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Under intense pressure from protests that closed school systems throughout the state and brought thousands of teachers and their supporters to the State Capitol, the Oklahoma Senate last week approved a long-delayed education-reform package.

Late last week Democratic senators forged an agreement on the reform measure, which calls for $230 million in new taxes.

The bill was assumed dead in the Senate two weeks ago, when it failed to win enough votes to include an emergency clause. Senate sponsors had for weeks refused to send the measure on to Gov. Henry Bellmon without the clause, which had the effect of making it more difficult for opponents to overturn the tax hikes through a ballot referendum.

After a six-hour caucus on April 19, however, Senate Democrats emerged with the two-thirds majority needed to approve the clause. The final vote was 32 to 14, with all but one of the chamber's Republicans voting in the negative.

Governor Bellmon, a Republican, is expected to sign the bill.

The emergency clause also allows the measure to take effect immediately, thus giving districts funds for the coming school year.

"The issue here is solving the school-funding crisis," said Karla Feeley, spokesman for the Oklahoma Education Association. "Our schools need that money now."

The week-long protest, which was called April 12 by Kyle Dahlem, president of the OEA, enjoyed uncommonly broad support. It involved teachers, parents, students, school-board members, administrators, and other educators.

OEA officials estimated the job actions forced more than 120 of the state's 600-plus school districts to close on any given day, and involved about 60 percent of the group's 30,000 members. Crowds of 5,000 or more demonstrated in front of the Capitol each day, they said, with close to 20,000 there last Thursday.

But the union decided not to call a conventional strike in order to avoid dissipating its public support, observers said.

Union leaders had planned to discuss the possibility of an open-ended strike at their convention April 20.

Going 'Berserk'

"It's kind of like the state has gone berserk," said Kara Gae Wilson, superintendent of the Tulsa County schools. County schools closed last week and "everybody just [went] to lobby the legislature," she said.

Faced with the prospect of a teacher walkout--and because they also wanted the legislature to pass the bill--many other superintendents and school boards canceled school as well.

"We are in sympathy with our teachers," said James Christian, superintendent of the Muskogee County schools. Mr. Christian said he and his school board agreed to cancel the week's classes for the district's 6,700 students after the walkout was announced.

Many districts reshuffled their calendars to accommodate the protest. In Oklahoma City, for instance, officials moved to last week an unused "snow day" that was scheduled for April 27.

In a letter to all district employees, Superintendent Arthur W. Steller said the city's board of education had decided to allow them the day off so they could join their colleagues from around the state at the Capitol.

"I urge you to go to the Capitol ... and let your voice be heard," he wrote. "I plan to be there."

District officials also wanted to show some solidarity with protesters even on the days when city schools were in session, Mr. Steller said. So all schools in the district flew the state flag upside down, a traditional sign of distress.

"We weren't trying to say the United States was in distress," Mr. Steller explained. "It was just Oklahoma." Veterans' groups complained after two days, however, and Mr. Steller ordered the flags flown normally.

Eleventh-Hour Solution

The bill approved last week contains a wide variety of educational reforms, from early-childhood programs and increased teacher salaries to extensive curricular revisions. It pays for the changes through a half-cent increase in the state sales tax and increases in the corporate and personal-income taxes. (See Education Week, Jan. 17, 1990.)

A key element of the compromise that cleared the way for the bill was a separate measure, passed by the Senate last week, to provide low-income families with a sales-tax refund.

Senate Republicans had objected to the tax increases as too large. They also said that some necessary reforms were not included in the legislation, such as a school-choice program and a plan to consolidate rural schools.

The central disagreement, however, was over the emergency clause of the bill.

Because the state's fiscal year begins July 1, the clause was necessary if school districts were to begin the coming year with additional funds. Without the emergency clause, the bill would not have taken effect for 90 days, and certain provisions would not have been valid until next January, according to a Senate aide.

In addition, the 90-day waiting period would have allowed opponents of the bill to collect signatures to put portions of the measure on a statewide referendum. Both Democrats in the legislature and educators were reluctant to let that happen.

"We're elected representatives, and our responsibility is to make the tough choices," said Carolyn A. Thompson, chairman of the House education committee. She said she feared voters would defeat the tax provisions of the law but leave the educational reforms intact.

"Then districts would have mandated reforms without the money to pay for them," she said.

Supporters of the measure also said a statewide campaign would have been very hard to wage because of the complexity of the bill.

"I honestly think it would have been difficult to clearly communicate the details of this legislation," said Richard P. Rush, president of the Oklahoma State Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which supported the package.

Although some participants and observers were unsure last week whether the protest was making any difference, others said the daily rallies spurred the compromise.

The large turnouts at the Capitol, said Ms. Feeley, made lawmakers see that the public "wants this whole thing solved as soon as possible."

Ms. Dahlem said the protest was keeping the legislature in special session. "If I hadn't called this walkout last week," she said before the agreement was announced, "they wouldn't even be at the table right now."

Representative Thompson agreed. "This thing has kept the session going," she said last Thursday afternoon. "We don't want to go home until something happens."

And an aide to Robert V. Cullison, the Senate president pro tem, said the protests served to "heighten the focus of the whole issue."

"It's hard to measure what kind of an impact it had," he added. "But it definitely had an impact."

While the protest was going on, several participants said they, too, were having difficulty gauging its effectiveness.

"It's really hard to tell if this has had any effect on the legislative process," said Jo Pedigrue, assistant executive director of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association. The organization neither supported nor opposed the walkout, she said.

Ms. Pedigrue added, however, that OSSBA. officials--like their union counterparts--were "totally frustrated" with the legislature.

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