In a partisan political age, a fundamental, ideological disagreement often dictates the terms of our debates. That disagreement concerns the proper size and scope of government – what it should do and what it should not.
In Oklahoma in recent years, the debate has been dominated by those who feel the size and scope of government, at state and federal levels, is too large, bloated by corruption and bureaucracy. Oklahoma agencies face further reductions as income tax cuts loom large on the horizon. The Republican agenda, despite the inadequacies of state government, is to further cripple it. This agenda is wrong for Oklahomans.
Whether discussion revolves around education, roads and bridges, the health of our state, or how we take care of senior citizens, our government lingers on the brink of a coma induced by massive budget cuts. Many politicians love to play a disingenuous rhetorical game by proclaiming Oklahoma’s government is too large and incompetent one moment, then stating the government is functioning “just fine” on the other, and therefore can tolerate further cuts.
One needs look no further than Oklahoma’s public school system to see evidence of the government’s starvation into inadequacy. Oklahoma’s schools ranked “far below average” in the 2011 Science and Engineering Readiness Index, which assesses aptitude in preparing students for careers involving science and mathematics. According to the National Education Association, Oklahoma ranks 49th in the dollars it spends per student. Class sizes in Oklahoma schools are swelling while education support staff is downsized and less dollars go to elective courses, textbooks and technology, and basic operational needs.
Many of these failures, but not all, can be attributed to the policies of our egregiously unqualified superintendent of public instruction, Janet Barresi. Last year, the Republican majority in the Legislature, followed by the Republican governor, gave Barresi unprecedented powers over the State Board of Education. She used those powers to cut funding for reading sufficiency programs, professional development programs, and popular and effective programs such as Literacy First and the Street School in Tulsa that offered alternative classes and therapeutic counseling to students. She also cut the stipend for National Board Certified teachers. Thankfully, through the efforts of concerned legislators and outraged citizens, the stipend was provided through a supplemental appropriation. Now, I am fighting to ensure NBCT teachers keep their stipend in the years to come. However, we cannot expect the Republicans’ and Barresi’s battle against public education and teacher compensation to end there.
The school system is not the only program in which the effect of funding cuts is becoming more pronounced. Oklahoma ranks near the bottom in a number of health indicators, such as number of deaths due to heart disease, yet this statistic remains ignored as GOP leadership has voiced no intentions to backfill the 20 percent cut in funding the Department of Health has sustained over the past three years. The Department of Corrections is constantly running at maximum capacity, and the ratio of inmates to officers is 160 to 1. Oklahoma continues to be one of the worst states in the number of structurally deficient bridges.
The “Child Maltreatment 2009 Report” states Oklahoma has “the third-worst rate in the nation… five times the acceptable national standard” for abused or neglected children under state care, yet we systematically underfund the Department of Human Services. As a result, DHS lacks dollars necessary to employ case workers to lessen unsustainable caseloads. However, as part of a settlement of a recent lawsuit, DHS was ordered to reduce caseloads. The lawsuit alleged foster children were being abused while in state custody, and is now requiring the hiring of more caseworkers to meet reasonable professional standards to reduce the number of deaths due to child abuse or neglect. Caseloads reported by DHS range from between 20 children and more than 30 children per worker, when accrediting body standards call for no more than 18 children per caseworker, or eight per caseworker for special needs children. The settlement also created a three-person panel to oversee reforms. However, if we continue to starve DHS of resources, we will face another lawsuit, and worse, allow abuse or neglect to continue unchecked due to lack of appropriate and timely intervention.
I am reminded of Grover Norquist’s quip that he’s not in favor of abolishing the government, he merely wants to “shrink it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” Yet shrinking government more than it’s already been trimmed is tantamount to turning our backs on our commitment to protect individuals. In Norquist’s world, we eliminate or severely constrain the departments of education, health, human services, public safety. Meanwhile, the state continues to give subsidies to big oil and gas companies, which pay negative tax rates. You can see the results in their huge Tower of Babel in downtown Oklahoma City, but what price did rural school districts pay for that luxury? Are jobs for these companies more important than jobs for rural school teachers?
I urge lawmakers and citizens alike to set the bar higher, to aspire to make Oklahoma a better place for its people, rather than a state that inhibits its government to the disservice of all.
Mike Brown is state representative for District 4, which includes Cherokee County.