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Okla. Governor Vetoes High-Profile Reform Measure

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Republican Gov. Frank Keating of Oklahoma landed the latest blow in a protracted feud with the Democratic-controlled legislature and the state's largest teachers' union last month when he vetoed a high-profile school-reform bill.

The measure, sponsored by Democratic leaders, would have guaranteed a long-anticipated 8 percent salary hike for thousands of experienced teachers who are paid the minimum allowable wage in the state. Oklahoma currently ranks 47th in the nation in teachers' salaries, according to the Oklahoma Education Association.

The bill also would have set up a $6 million professional-development program for teachers and a $1 million program for at-risk 4-year-olds.

But while he approved the funding when he signed the state's $1.5 billion K-12 education budget for fiscal 1997, the governor killed a companion bill that spelled out which programs the money would go toward. Without the second bill, school systems are free to spend the money on whatever programs they choose.

Gov. Keating explained that he vetoed the bill because of his concerns about the early-childhood program, which runs counter to his goal of downsizing government. If every eligible child were to have taken advantage of the early-childhood services the state would have offered under the bill, the governor's spokesman said, the effort could eventually have ballooned into a $50 million program.

"This year, it's $1 million; next year it'll be $2 million," said Dan Mahoney, Mr. Keating's spokesman. "You have to stop it somewhere."

Another Attack

But many political observers see the veto as part of a broader battle the governor is waging with lawmakers and educators. And teachers' union officials said last month that the governor's veto represents yet another attack on their profession.

"Over the past two weeks, the governor has been on a rampage against teachers," said Kimberly Smithton, a spokeswoman for the OEA.

At a June news conference, the governor said that he wanted to "break the back of the teachers' union that is against making our young people smarter and better prepared in the 21st century." He blamed the OEA for what he called the "dumbing down of Oklahoma youngsters." And he has called the 47,000-member union "an arm of the state's Democratic Party."

"He's not a supporter of public education, and his actions prove it," Ms. Smithton said.

Democratic lawmakers also lambasted the governor after the veto.

"Once again, Gov. Keating has shown his true colors," Sen. Don Williams, who sponsored the failed legislation, told reporters following the veto. "He doesn't like our public schools and has a low opinion of the thousands of men and women who've spent years in the classroom teaching our children and grandchildren."

Not Against Teachers

But the governor's spokesman rejected the charge that Gov. Keating is bent on angering teachers.

In vetoing the bill over its early-childhood provisions, it was never the governor's intention to deny teachers a pay raise, Mr. Mahoney said.

In his State of the State Address this year, Gov. Keating proposed a $11 million bonus-pay raise for teachers working in the fastest-improving schools. The proposal, which was opposed by the teachers' union, ultimately died in the legislature. (See Education Week, Feb. 14, 1996.)

Mr. Mahoney said the governor's office will send letters to school districts urging local boards to use part of the state funding to follow through on the salary hikes.

But many observers said they still find it hard to see past the political bickering that overshadows education policy in the state capital.

"If we want education reform and better schools, the rhetoric and name-calling must stop," said Kay Floyd, the director of government relations for the Oklahoma State School Boards Association.

Ms. Floyd said her group was disappointed by the governor's veto, in part because the bill would have granted school districts more regulatory flexibility.

"The bill would have helped local districts make more local decisions," she said.

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