OKLAHOMA CITY — Calling the potential ramifications of State Question 744 devastating for the state, Gov. Brad Henry announced Tuesday he is joining the campaign against the education proposal.
“I can tell you from experience that if State Question 744 passes, it will absolutely devastate the budget of all other critical areas of the state budget,” Henry said while announcing he will serve as statewide chairman for the One Oklahoma Coalition in their push to oppose the ballot measure. “And we can simply not allow that to happen.”
Although Henry has been vocal in the past about his opposition to the plan that would require the state to spend annually no less than the average amount spent on each student by surrounding states, his latest remarks join a continuing chorus from other politicians who have criticized the proposal. Those officials, who are represented on both sides of the aisle, include both gubernatorial candidates Republican Mary Fallin and Democrat Jari Askins, dozens of legislators and other appointed or elected members serving in office.
Walton Robinson, communications director of the Yes on 744 campaign, acknowledged the anemic political support for the pro-744 movement. But he said this is not indicative of the lack of backing among the voters.
He called Henry’s news conference Tuesday “political theater” and not representative of the grass-roots movement that he argued his campaign is leading.
“People recognize it is the politicians who have failed us and led us to being 49th in the country and last in the region,” Robinson said, referring to Oklahoma’s ranking in per-pupil education funding. “They talk a good game, but it is really just lip service that does no good for the people.”
Following Henry’s announcement, Tim Gilpin, who was appointed to the State Board of Education by the governor, also echoed the view that most public officials are merely trying to protect the status quo instead of looking for the type of reform that voters want.
“I am disappointed that my friend, Brad Henry has made this decision,” he said in a statement. “I am not surprised though, because I knew that the office holders in this state would be against SQ 744 because it will shake up the power structure in Oklahoma City and hold our leaders accountable for the promises they make to our students.”
Meanwhile, Henry and members of the One Oklahoma Coalition, which is the group spearheading the opposition to SQ 744, have embraced the support from elected officials.
Henry said the safe position for himself and many other might be to “stay on the sidelines” during the debate, but he said because of its importance, he encourages other public officials to join him in letting voters know their stances.
“My position is it is a no-brainer,” he said. “And every public office ought to come out and state their position against it.”
Pryor resident Ethel J. Pembleton, who works as part-time classroom volunteer in the public school system, said she opposes the state question because she doesn’t see just throwing money at education as the key to solving the problem.
In addition, she said she worries that the cuts to other agencies could result in other problems, such as the Department of Corrections not treating inmates properly or having the state not be able to improve its foster parent system.
Pembleton added that even though she doesn’t share the same political leaning as her local representative, she better understands the issue and its possible consequences after talking with Rep. Ben Sherrer, D-Pryor Creek.
Pembleton said other elected officials should follow the lead of Sherrer and Henry in talking with voters about the issue and letting them know what they think.
“That is why we elected them and sent them up there,” she said. “They are the ones with all the data, and we are the ones paying taxes and working our tail feathers off, so we don’t have time to do all that. People put a lot of faith and money into having them serve, and they should earn that by protecting us.”
Unlike the 10 other ballot measures voters will decide on this November, SQ 744 is the only state question that was created by an initiative petition rather than a legislative referendum.
Robinson, with Yes on 744, said because people outside of government are the ones who created the measure, voters should be cautious of listening to elected officials speak about it.
Elk City resident Betty Erwin, who said she supports the state questions because she wants to see teachers such as her granddaughter have more resources to do their jobs, agreed that residents should do more than just listen to what politicians tell them to do.
“I think we should have more say in just about everything,” she said. “You should do what your heart tells you to do, because (politicians) will just say one thing and then get back in office and do something different.”
Trevor Brown covers the Oklahoma statehouse for CNHI and The Transcript. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.