Okla. Voters To Decide on Paying Price for Reforms

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Public support for education reform and the taxes needed to pay for it--will be put to the test next week in Oklahoma, where voters are sot to decide the fate of a five-year, $2-billion school-reform and tax bill passed last year by the legislature.

The Oct. 15 referendum on repealing the law has unleashed passionate debate and fierce grassroots campaigning on both sides of the issue. Across the state, television commercials, billboards, and bumper stickers trumpet their messages, observers said.

"It's the number-one issue in the state right now," said Jon Dablander, spokesman for the state department of education.

One possible indication of the intensity of feeling over the issue came last week, when the offices of the Oklahoma Taxpayers Union, which has been urging support for the repeal referendum, were hit by an explosion apparently caused by a homemade bomb. Authorities said they had no suspects or motive in the attack.

The controversial law, known as House Bill 1017, called for reduced class sizes, new accreditation standards, a new statewide core curriculum, mandatory half-day kindergarten, and higher teacher salaries.

To fund those changes, the measure also raised the sales tax one-half cent, increased the corporate income-tax rate from 5 percent to 6 percent, and hiked personal-income taxes by amounts ranging from 1 percent to 16 percent, depending on income level.

The tax increases outraged some citizens, prompting the formation of a group called Stop Taxing Our People, or Stop New Taxes, which led the drive for next week's referendum.

In addition to opposing higher taxes, opponents of HB 1017 fault the law's reforms as ineffective and a costly sellout to teachers' groups. And some rural residents complain that the measure is forcing their small school districts to consolidate.

A broad coalition of education and business groups has lined up in support of the law, however, and recent polls suggest that a majority of voters will back it next week.

Supporters of the law are emphasizing that repeal could eliminate some 2,300 teaching jobs and cut $178 million in funding to K-12 public education this year alone.

"It would be a very chaotic condition in our state" if the law is repealed, said Superintendent of Public Instruction Sandy Garrett.

"It's sort of like putting toothpaste back in the tube," said Barbara Smith, president of the Oklahoma Education Association, which is also against repeal.

Ms. Garrett also predicted that property taxes could go up in the event that HB 1017 is repealed. If districts are left with financial obligations to vendors or teachers that they cannot fulfill, she suggested, local judges could order higher property levies to pay the debt.

Rocky Trip in Legislature

The referendum battle is only a continuation of the debate that has swirled around the school-reform program since it was first proposed by a citizens' panel in the fall of 1989.

Although it had strong backing from then-Gov. Henry Bellmon, the bill had a rocky trip through the legislature and was considered dead in early April 1990. But a teacher walkout, closed schools, and thousands of protesters at the State Capitol finally pushed Senate passage of the bill later that month.

The point at issue at that time was the inclusion of an emergency clause, which allowed the measure to take effect immediately and made it more difficult for opponents to overturn the measure through just the kind of ballot referendum that will take place next week.

The Oct. 15 election marks the culmination of months of effort by anti-tax forces to bring the bill to a popular vote.

STOP New Taxes successfully circulated a petition to place the repeal question on the ballot. The state supreme court upheld the petition last summer, prompting Gov. David Walters, who opposes repeal, to schedule the referendum.

Leaders of STOP New Taxes contend that HB 1017 will do little to address the problems of the schools. Instead, they are calling for strong local control, increased parental participation, a "return to the core curriculum of the 3 R's," and strong classroom discipline, according to the group's chairman, Stanley M. Ward.

Reforms Seen as 'Cosmetic'

While STOP New Taxes supports some parts of HB 1017, such as merit pay for teachers, the group dismisses most of the other changes in the law as "cosmetic" or "hollow."

Mr. Ward is especially critical of HB 1017's provisions lowering class sizes to no more than 20 in the primary grades by 1993.

"Reduced class size has nothing to do with quality education," he argued, citing research that he said has shown that the pupil-teacher ratio must drop below 15 to 1 to have an impact.

Mr. Ward also assailed what he called HB 1017's "old tax-and-spend philosophy," and maintained that the hiring of additional teachers to lower class size was part of a plan to "swell the coffers of O.E.A. and N.E.A." during a time of declining school enrollment.

Representative Bill Graves, a Republican and former member of the House Education Committee, also backs repeal of HB 1017, which he said "is just a massive tax increase without any real educational reform in it."

Mr. Graves also maintained that the reform law's provision for mandatory kindergarten for 5-year-olds violates the Oklahoma constitution, which requires schooling only for children ages 8 to 16.

Consolidation Concerns

The issue of consolidation of school districts has also been a factor in dissent over HB 1017.

Although HB 1017 does not require consolidation, it contains curricular and other mandates that officials of a number of smaller districts feel they will be able to meet only if they merge. Education-department figures indicate the pace of consolidations has increased substantially in recent months. (See Education Week, July 31, 1991 .)

In addition, a companion measure passed soon after HB 1017 provided a $35-million incentive fund for districts that consolidated by choice.

Such changes have engendered ill feeling toward HB 1017, however, in rural areas that equate the loss of a school district with the weakening of community identity.

The issue flared in late August, when a subcommittee of the state board of education issued a list recommending that nearly 200 districts statewide consider voluntary consolidation. The result was a "backlash" against HB 1017, according to Ms. Smith of the O.E.A.

But Ms. Smith added that the setback for the reform law had been only temporary, and Ms. Garrett, the state schools chief, noted that the separate measure authorizing the incentive monies expired Sept. 1, thus making the list obsolete. A coalition called Growth Oklahoma, or Go, meanwhile, is spearheading the anti-repeal effort.

Although most Republicans in the legislature opposed HB 1017, the coalition defending the law includes many traditionally G.O.P.-leaning businesses. In addition to such education organizations as the 0.E.A., the state school-boards group, and the state P.T.A., GO'S long list of endorsers includes more than two dozen chambers of commerce, Phillips Petroleum Company, and the Oklahoma Farm Bureau.

Economic Role Stressed

Backers of the law say that it is crucial to the state's economic future.

"I think it would be a great blow to us in education as well as to economic development if HB 1017 isn't sustained," Governor Walters said in an interview.

The reforms, Mr. Walters said, have helped Oklahoma rate among the finalists competing with other states for a United Airlines maintenance plant and a McDonnell Douglas Corporation facility.

HB 1017's changes are "true reform'' and are already casing crowded classrooms and providing computer labs and libraries where there were none before, according to the founder and executive director of GO, Terry Aimon.

Such improvements are essential to keep Oklahoma's workers competitive in a global economy, Ms. Aimon argued. Even with the extra cost to the taxpayer--which she acknowledged could reach $2,500 in higher income and sales taxes for a family of four over five years---"it's worth it," she added.

"This is an investment in my children's future ," said Ms. Aimon. "It is absolutely worth it."

GO Takes the Lead

Heading into the final week of the campaign, Go appeared to have taken the lead over STOP in the race for Sooners' support.

Recent public-opinion polls showed growing opposition to the repeal effort. A poll of 300 adults conducted last month by the Oklahoma Press Association found that 52.6 percent would vote against repeal of HB 1017, compared with 46.8 percent polled in August.

Another poll showed 35 percent for repeal and 46 percent against. Moreover, some respondents who formerly opposed HB 1017 now say they will vote to keep it out of concern over the potentially chaotic consequences of repeal.

Still, more than a quarter of those polled are undecided, and members of GO are concerned that some voters will pull the "yes" lever in the mistaken belief that they are supporting the reform law, when in fact they are voting to repeal it.

Go also enjoyed a substantial advantage in funding. A $500-a-person fund-raising dinner last month netted the coalition about $300,000. That amount and $500,000 already on hand will help buy television time, said a spokesman, Barbara Webb, who added that the group's goal is to run a "million dollar" campaign.

STOP New Taxes officials last month estimated their war chest to be about $50,000 and said they were seeking as much free television coverage as possible.

Vol. 11, Issue 06, Pages 22, 24

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