By Patrick B. McGuigan, editor
OKLAHOMA CITY – In her State of the State address, Governor Mary Fallin devoted most of her time and attention to the budget challenges she and lawmakers must face in the 2016 legislative session. But she looked at a handful of budget boosts, and one notable change in the way the Sooner State structures the governance of public education.
While the Department of Human Services would face a smaller-than-most-agencies trim of 3 percent, Fallin proposes $11.3 million “to fully fund the Pinnacle Plan. It’s important to keep our commitment for the sake of the thousands of Oklahoma foster children who deserve better futures than they would have otherwise.”
The Pinnacle Plan was part of a settlement reached four years ago which ended a federal class action, civil rights lawsuit. As CapitolBeatOK reported then, “DHS agreed in the settlement to make targeted performance improvements related to the way it cares for children in foster care.”
The accord pledged the state of Oklahoma to improved performance in a total of 15 performance areas for child welfare.
Fallin’s proposed change in public school governance dealt with what she called “the old dinosaur nobody will bring out of the closet. Just as I talked earlier about the decades-old structural budget problems, it’s time to have an honest discussion about the decades-old structural problems of our education system and how we can give our children the quality education they deserve.
“Listen to the words of a former governor when I sat on the back row in this very chamber as a young legislator 23 years ago – ‘We need more dollars in the classroom. We need fewer school districts. Real education improvements are impacted by better organization at least as much as through additional revenues. It’s unrealistic to force everyone in the state to fund local school inefficiencies.’”
As Fallin then pointed out, that description of the state’s top-heavy district structure “was said by former Governor David Walters, a Democrat, in his State of the State address in 1993. My, how things haven’t changed.”
Fallin proceeded to declare, “It’s time to consolidate the administrative costs of the state’s underperforming K-8 dependent school districts by putting them into existing Pre-K-12 school districts. To be clear, this does not mean closing rural schools. This would get more money to classrooms and can enhance educational outcomes in a more effective way. We must ensure that our students are provided the highest quality instruction through advanced curriculum and facilities.”
She continued, pointing to a relatively unexamined corner of public school funding: “To help weather this energy sector downturn’s effect on school funding, let’s give school districts the flexibility to use their building funds for teacher pay and benefits if local officials determine it is prudent and meets their most pressing needs.
“This would free up $200 million at the local level that is currently restricted for other uses. This isn’t a panacea and it won’t be used by every district, but giving this flexibility will help schools. It will modernize the use of the ad valorem tax base and give districts more flexibility to meet their real needs. This would make a huge difference to our schools.”
Building on past State of the State speeches she described the administration’s “Oklahoma Works” initiative as “more important than ever with developing partnerships between schools, local businesses and other key partners with its intent to boost educational attainment and better align workforce to the needs of employers.”
Fallin described herself as “100 percent supportive of Education Savings Accounts. 100 percent.”
She explained, “All students learn differently and should have the opportunity to attend a school that has the best environment for each student to be successful. This can be accomplished through Education Savings Accounts, while still protecting school finances. Senator Clark Jolley and Representative Jason Nelson have legislation on this issue. Send it to me and let’s give students and parents a better chance for educational success than they have today.”
The chief executive pointed to what she deemed “one more big lift. It’s this building.”
She congratulated legislators for starting restoration of the aging state Capitol building. Now, she said, “We have contractors on site fixing this irreplaceable building that has been literally crumbling around us for far too long. We’re making the People’s House safe to visit and work in again. It’s one of our top tourist destinations, it’s the seat of our government and we’re finally on a path to treating it as such.
“We’ve always known the $120 million bond issue you passed two years ago was a start, not a finish. The contractors have told us they think it will take around another $120 million to complete this important job.
“Let’s finish the Capitol’s most pressing needs. In 2017 we will celebrate with a party this building’s 100th birthday. No one should want to stop construction. Interest rates remain low, and the new bond wouldn’t be issued until 2018, when 40 percent of our existing bond principal rolls off the books, so we can do this in a way that doesn’t affect next year’s budget.
“This is a legacy opportunity for you all. Let’s finish the job right.”
NOTE: This is the second in a series parsing key elements of the governor’s State of the State speech, using as often as possible her own words.