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Rally Responses

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The editorial response and news coverage by The Oklahoman of the education rally at the state Capitol Monday is an example of the attitudes and false claims that have made sure the state funds public schools at one of the lowest rates in the nation.

On the other hand, it didn’t help the public education cause here in the state that leading educators at the rally didn’t push for specific legislation or funding initiatives. The lingering residue from education-related State Question 744, which was crushingly defeated in 2010, probably didn’t help either.

In an historic event, an estimated crowd of 25,000 to 30,000 people, many of them teachers, administrators, students and parents, rallied at the Capitol Monday under the banner of asking for more money. They have an excellent case. Education funding has dropped by more than 22 percent since the economic downturn in 2008, and the state is almost always ranked among the lowest five states in the nation in per pupil funding if not dead last.

All this has translated into larger class sizes and low teacher salaries. This, in turn, has led to teacher shortages. Meanwhile, excessive testing and too much bureaucratic and political intrusion into the learning process, along with the inadequate funding, have combined to become a real assault on our public schools. There is a growing awareness of this assault throughout the nation. It still remains a question whether this awareness is happening in Oklahoma beyond those in the education field.

The Oklahoman, an ultra-conservative newspaper owned by Colorado billionaire Philip Anschutz, responded on its editorial page with typical anti-education sloganeering as the rally neared. I will cite an editorial it published on the day of the rally. In that editorial, the newspaper argued the rally was a “disservice” to students. Many districts used a snow day to allow teachers and students to attend, and this was wrong, according to the newspaper.

But the most telling argument in the editorial deals with education funding. Here’s the argument verbatim:

Not one member of the Legislature is unaware of how public schools feel about education funding. Lawmakers understand that school budgets have been cut in recent years. But they also know the check written to common ed is always larger than any other government entity. And they’re aware that no superintendent believes his or her district gets enough financial help from the state — ever.

Let’s parse this a bit because there are standard conservative talking points or false claims here when it comes to education funding. First, yes, common education gets the most amount of funding from state government but that has no correlation to whether schools have sufficient money to operate. There are more than 670,000 public students in the state. It’s only logical that education would receive the most money. Second, it’s just a false and unprovable claim that school superintendents will never believe they get enough money from the state. Oklahoma has provided inadequate funding education for decades. The premise has not even been close to tested nor will it ever be. This is simply hyperbole.

Schools get the most money from the state. No school superintendent will ever be satisfied with the amount. Therefore, educators should shut up and stay home. This is what passes for intellectual argumentation in this state.

Meanwhile, in its main story about the rally in NewsOK.com, the web site of The Oklahoman, the reporters use comments by Brandon Dutcher, the senior vice president for the ultra-conservative think tank, the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA). Dutcher is allowed to make two suspect claims: (1) Education funding is at an all-time high. (2) There’s no evidence that ties funding to school performance.

Dutcher claims to use figures from state, federal and local sources to make his funding claim, but the evidence is not provided in the story. Some school funding is obviously dedicated to specific uses and doesn’t mean it’s going directly into the classroom. As far as the school performance issue goes, the cause and effect evidence on a larger scale is quite clear. For example, Oklahoma has one of the lowest per pupil spending rates in the nation along with low college graduation rates. Is there a correlation? That’s worth a look at the very least. The point is that Dutcher is allowed to make his claims unchallenged in a story that should be focused more on claims from teachers and administrators. When’s the last time OCPA sponsored a rally that attracted 30,000 people to the state Capitol? This is simply biased reporting.

In the end, though, supporters for more school funding here perhaps should have rallied around a more specific initiative. It’s worth noting that House Bill 1017, the educational reform bill passed in 1990, had specific components. This is probably difficult to do now because of the 2010 defeat of State Question 744, which would have required the state to eventually fund education on a per pupil basis at a regional average. The question was crushed in an 828,529 to 189,164 vote. Two of its leading opponents were former Gov. Brad Henry, a Democrat who appeared in television ads urging people to vote against it, and Oklahoma Policy Institute director David Blatt, who spoke at Monday’s rally. His opposition was often cited by The Oklahoman as a reason to vote against the proposal.

As I noted earlier, The Oklahoman argues, “Not one member of the Legislature is unaware of how public schools feel about education funding.” That’s actually true. But they also know that voters here and supposedly those people who claim to be sympathetic to education concerns won’t even consider “average” school funding and at a “regional” level at that. Can we at least go from “abysmal” to “mediocre” funding then? Perhaps, SQ 744 was ill-advised or timed wrong, and there’s no sense in living in the past, but its overwhelming defeat told us much about voters and education politics here. What real progress can be made in this suffocating environment when it comes to education funding remains to be seen.

Earthquakes Continue To Rattle Oklahoma

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One of the strongest earthquakes in Oklahoma so far in 2014 struck north of Crescent Sunday, just one of several earthquakes that rattled the area.

There were no immediate reports of major property damage and injuries, but the temblors are a stark reminder that the state is experiencing a dramatic rise in seismic activity, which has been tied to the hydraulic fracturing or fracking drilling process.

A 4.4-magnitude earthquake hit north of Crescent at 9:10 a.m. Sunday and was just one of twelve earthquakes in the area that started after midnight, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) reported. A 4.3-magnitude earthquake struck in the same area at 1:51 a.m., according to the USGS. Crescent is about 43 miles north of Oklahoma City.

The earthquakes raise two important questions. Is it only a matter of time before a major earthquake strikes and causes significant damage and injuries in Oklahoma? Why aren’t state leaders doing more to address the issue?

Researchers have concluded that a 5.7-magnitude earthquake that struck near Prague in 2011, damaging several buildings, was likely caused by wastewater injection wells used in the fracking process. Wastewater generated by fracking is injected by high pressure in underground wells, which researchers have concluded can lead to seismic activity along fault lines.

The Oklahoma Geological Survey notes that “about 99% of the earthquakes that have occurred in Oklahoma over the past few years also lie within 9 miles” of a wastewater injection well.

The Oklahoma Corporation Commission recently approved new rules requiring injection well operators to collect and retain more data related to their operations, but the rules must also be approved by the Oklahoma Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Mary Fallin. The oil and gas lobby is one of the most powerful political forces in the state. The lobby has not opposed the new rules, but it would surely oppose a much-needed moratorium on injection wells or more intense regulations governing their operations.

Given the dramatic surge in earthquakes here and for the basic safety and welfare of state residents, the wisest action would be to stop all injection well operations until scientists can further study the issue.

What has become increasingly clear in recent years is that fracking and its related processes are environmentally damaging to our planet and threaten people’s health, safety and property. All this points to the continued need in this country to develop renewable and clean energy sources.

Inhofe EPW Theatrics

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Not that it’s anything new, but U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe issued a rather dramatic and hyperbolic statement related to a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing this week.

Inhofe, a member of the committee, addressed his remarks to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Gina McCarthy, complaining that the agency is “out of control.” Inhofe contends the EPA continues to “enact outlandish rules of obscene cost and harm to the economy . . .”

This is fairly typical rhetoric for Inhofe, who has based much of his Senate career on denying the reality of climate-change science and supporting the financial interests of the fossil fuel industry. Oil and gas interests have been Inhofe’s largest campaign donors through the years.

What makes it noteworthy, though, is that Inhofe is claiming that if Republicans gain a majority in the Senate in the upcoming midterm elections, he will once again head the EPW Committee, which could be disastrous to the environment here and, really, throughout the world.

Inhofe’s statement argued rules governing emissions from power plants that use coal will result in lost jobs and higher prices, but these are tired and worn claims that simply ignore the impact and cost of pollution.

Inhofe claims the rules are just a part of the “ . . . EPA’s War on Fossil Fuels.” This is how the statement ends:

. . . EPA’s impact may be coal now, but we know it’s going to be natural gas next. Whether it’s hydraulic fracturing or methane emissions, the EPA is intent to carry out what the Sierra Club has named it’s “Beyond Natural Gas” campaign, just as the EPA did with Sierra Club’s “Beyond Coal” campaign. We in the Senate have been charged with stewarding this nation, which includes watching out for those who are most vulnerable. The elderly, the poor – these are the people who are most at risk from losing their homes or their health due to skyrocketing electricity bills, which is exactly what will happen under the EPA’s War on Fossil Fuels. It’s our job to watch out for them, and it just so happens that the entity we need to protect them from is a seemingly unlikely source – it’s President Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency.

Note the sanctimonious reference to the “elderly, the poor,” as if Inhofe has ever made their concerns and interests a real focus of his Senate political agenda. In fact, his political career has been rooted in helping the wealthy and privileged in our country at the expense of everyone else. Note, too, the standard GOP bashing of President Barack Obama. This type of political rhetoric and grandstanding doesn’t get more hollow than this.

Meanwhile, as Inhofe supposedly frets about the “elderly, the poor” in Washington, his home state of Oklahoma is experiencing a dramatic spike in earthquakes that has been tied to the hydraulic fracturing or fracking drilling process. For many parts of Oklahoma, daily earthquakes are just routine now. Oklahoma had the second highest number of earthquakes in the contiguous U.S. in 2013. Does anyone here think Inhofe will push for stronger regulations in the oil and gas drilling process to stop the earthquake surge here?

Pundits predict Inhofe will easily win reelection this November, and that’s not good for Oklahoma or the planet. If he does become chair of the EPW Committee, it will be even worse.

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