With so much at stake for so many, it’s simply wrong that Republicans Gov. Mary Fallin and Oklahoma Treasurer Ken Miller are working together at the last minute to streamline Oklahoma’s pension plans this legislative session without allowing adequate input from stakeholders.
The Oklahoma Legislature adjourns at the end of the month, and leaders are even hinting at an earlier conclusion, but news reports are only now surfacing that Fallin and Miller have nearly reached a deal or developed a proposal.
What that deal might be is a little bit difficult to ascertain, but it’s highly probable that any proposal would try to reduce the state’s costs in some manner and, given the current ideology in power at the Capitol, possibly shift more costs to pension holders and/or reduce their benefits. At the state Capitol these days, “reform” always means less for ordinary Oklahomans and more for the state’s wealthiest citizens.
In other words, what won’t happen is the honorable thing, and that is for the state government to simply meet its basic commitment to adequately fund the state’s seven pension plans, which now face an $11 billion liability.
Two major contentious issues have emerged. One is to streamline the management of all the plans under one board, an idea that is adamantly opposed by the Oklahoma State Firefighter’s Association. The second one is to somehow begin to change the overall system for new workers from a defined benefit plan to a defined contribution plan, which should worry anyone with a sense of logic. How can you change the system in this way for new workers in a state like Oklahoma without jeopardizing the future benefits of those currently enrolled in one of the systems?
The Oklahoma Education Association has issued a legislative alert about the matter because teachers fall under the woefully underfunded Oklahoma Teachers Retirement System (OTRS), and, on a personal note, I’ve had discussions with current teachers who are extremely concerned they will face reduced benefits when they retire. (Full disclosure: As a professor, I currently pay into the OTRS.) Our state teachers, some of the lowest paid instructors in the nation, working in some of the most underfunded schools in the nation, SHOULD be concerned.
There is no question that the overall liability of the pension plans is a problem, but the real culprit has been the lack of funding for the plans over the years. Our legislators have been more interested in cutting taxes for the state’s wealthiest citizens than honoring basic commitments to teachers, first responders and social workers.
Even as Miller, in particular, talks about the dire need for pension change, the legislature is considering tax cuts spread out over two years beginning in 2015.
Miller, in one news report, claims he and Fallin have been transparent and should have some specific legislation to offer next week.
But why wait until the last minute? It appears to be a political tactic to prevent groups interested in the issue to mobilize in protest. Politics has always been a dirty business in Oklahoma, but this political move, if it happens, is extreme by any standards, especially given Fallin’s undying support for a tax cut.
University of Oklahoma President David Boren published a passionate and insightful op-ed last week that encapsulates perfectly the seismic decline of state government funding for public higher education in this country.
I want to first praise Boren’s commentary, and then add some of my own points.
In an aptly titled editorial, “Will public higher education disappear?,” Boren calls the funding crisis of higher education a major threat to our country. “The result of declining state support for public higher education and cost shifting to students,” Boren writes, “is threatening America's role in the world.”
As OU’s president since 1994, Boren makes his argument with good authority. He notes that state funding for OU has declined from 32 percent of its overall budget when he became president to just 15 percent now. Costs have been shifted to students, who often go into debt with loans secured by the federal government.
As a long-time professor in this state I’ve followed Boren’s comments about higher education since he became president, and I’ve read his pleas before for more state funding for higher education. I can’t recall reading a more passionate call for more state funding by Boren, and his points are succinct and convincing. We can’t ruin our public education system in this country without, essentially, ruining our country. I agree with that.
But I would like to add to Boren's comments because I believe he leaves a couple of important things out of his arguments, which need to be addressed in any discussion about funding for higher education.
(1) I couldn’t even pretend to know the influence of the “corporate model of education” on OU, but the philosophy underpinning it has been a complete disaster for more than two decades on the country’s overall public higher education system. The corporate model of education argues that students are consumers and instructors are providers, and their supposed free-market interaction will result in thriving universities. That hasn’t happened. Across the nation, universities face severe budget problems. In fact, the corporate model can be directly blamed for beginning to take the “public” out of “public education,” turning it into a consumer-driven product rather than the sustaining of deeply-needed centers of intellectualism and critical inquiry.
Those of us, like myself, who have spoken out against the corporate model of education have been ignored while powerful higher education advocates, such as Boren, more often than not simply ignore the issue. I can only guess it’s because of political expediency. Conservatives, which now control our own state government, believe in the moral viability of the free market and privatization of government. Some may well see the drop in OU’s state funding as a great victory of the free enterprise system and conservative values. Higher education leaders obviously have to be careful how they phrase their requests for more funding, but nothing can be systematically changed until the corporate model of education is exposed as one of the main culprits in what Boren calls the move to “dismantle public higher education.”
Let’s be clear: Students come to universities to learn, discover and create. They are not coming to buy a pair of shoes at the best price possible nor are universities trying to make the best profit possible by selling shoes. Conflating the academic mission with corporate ideology will result in exactly what we have now: Corporations and the rich people who control them pay less in taxes and students pay more in tuition in a system that is not even remotely sustainable. Both Boren and I will be long retired when it happens, but it’s conceivable given current trends that many of our public universities, especially in Oklahoma, could become private enterprises in the decades to come. Students will get priced out, and the country will rot in its conservative debris.
(2) My second point is that depoliticizing the call for more education funding hasn’t worked here. It’s true that both Oklahoma Republicans and Democrats have participated in creating budgets that have defunded higher education in recent years, but it’s the liberals who have stood up here consistently and argued for more education funding for universities and schools. It’s also the “movement” conservatives, or Republicans, who are most apt to argue in favor of the corporate model of education and tax cuts for the wealthiest among us, which leads to smaller or stagnant state budgets during poor economic times.
Gov. Mary Fallin and the GOP-dominated legislature are even on the verge of cutting income taxes once again under the dubious Republican argument that this will create a better economy here, but it’s probably going to mean less money for higher education down the road.
So my point is that there’s no hiding the fact that education funding issues, with some exceptions, are as politically partisan as anything else in our culture today. Nothing will get done by ignoring this obvious dilemma, as Boren, a former Democratic U.S. Senator, does in his commentary, whether the omission was intentional or not.
For years, universities have been under attack by conservatives, such as David Horowitz, for supposedly embracing liberal values across disciplines, which is a myth. I think many universities, perhaps even at OU, have been overly sensitive to this reductionist argument. The truth of the matter is that liberals actually need more space, freedom and recognition on our state’s campuses, in our culture and in our media here. If that doesn’t happen, then the funding issue for higher education won’t get seriously resolved anytime soon or ever.
A recent editorial in The Oklahoman attacking the Oklahoma Coalition for Reproductive Justice is a disingenuous, snarky piece of sophomoric drivel that deserves some basic refutation and a collective response.
Titled “Feminists for double-standards” (April 25, 2013), the editorial is filled with enough weird, overly wrought false comparisons and red-herring claims to make any decent English instructor cringe in embarrassment for its writer, who obviously needs to go to a writing lab for remedial help.
The overall thesis of the piece is difficult to discern. It seems to be that OCRJ members, who rallied at the Capitol this week during Pink Wave 2013, are feminists who contradict feminist tenets. The editorial never directly criticizes the group’s focus on bringing attention to Oklahoma’s draconian anti-abortion laws or legislative proposals that threaten the rights of women to control their bodies. It even agrees with a comment made by Martha Skeeters, OCRJ president, about the state’s high female incarceration rate.
What’s the point? If The Oklahoman wants to argue that state lawmakers should control women’s reproductive capabilities then by all means it should do so, but why simply attack a group that thinks otherwise with misleading claims that it somehow contradicts itself on some philosophical level about women’s rights? Again, what’s the point, especially since the editorial’s overall argument is not really an argument but more of a twisted maze of false, self-proclaimed epiphanies? It’s a make-believe, gotcha commentary without any real gotcha.
The editorial begins by making the claim that essentially OCRJ members are “self-proclaimed feminists” who embrace “double standards.” Note that it doesn’t focus on OCRJ’s work or the point of the rally. The point seems to be to undermine OCRJ's credibility in some manner, not to argue against its positions.
The main evidence provided for the dubious and just plain weird double-standards claim is that in her remarks Skeeters argued in favor of alternative sentencing for many imprisoned women in Oklahoma, which leads the nation in female incarceration. The editorial actually agrees with Skeeters’ overall point, but finds her “logic bizarre.” Isn’t that bizarre in itself?
Speaking of bizarre logic, here’s the editorial’s big point: “If women can be trusted to make their own decisions and live with the consequences when it comes to having an abortion, shouldn't the same standard apply to women who decide to break the law?” That’s supposedly a double standard, though not in any traditional sense that anyone can really understand.
It’s difficult to even parse the false comparison. I’ll try. Yes, women can be trusted to make their own decisions. It’s not a question, ever, of “if” or “when” or “how.” How does that belief somehow contradict the belief that the state has a ridiculously high and embarrassing female incarceration rate? What’s the “same standard”? Let’s be very clear: An abortion is NOT a crime, and Skeeters is not arguing that women who do actually commit criminal acts should not face consequences. She’s just arguing for sentencing that would allow more incarcerated mothers to live with their children.
But, the editorial screeches in the arrogance of stupidity, “. . . why stress the separation of mothers from their children when incarceration also separates fathers from children (not to mention the permanent separation that abortion creates)? Should the law treat criminal parents differently based on gender when each commits the same crime?”
Note, again, that the writer is not actually talking about OCRJ’s main mission of fighting for reproductive justice and rights for women. The writer is making red-herring claims about double standards to make snarky asides, such as “not to mention the permanent separation that abortion creates.” (Note the italics. It’s a code.) Skeeters is not arguing that fathers should not also be given alternative sentencing to be with their children, and, of course, what about single mothers or pregnant women who are incarcerated?
And, of course, men don’t have reproductive organs, and OCRP’s mission is to fight for reproductive rights for women.
The editorial then criticizes Skeeters for supporting sex education classes in our schools. “Skeeters' comments,” according to the editorial, “suggest she's fine with politicians intruding on private parental decisions regarding their children's learning about the birds and bees, but not similar efforts regarding citizens' abortion decisions.” Again, the false comparison and weird logic is simply staggering. Sex education classes help prevent abortions. That’s one of the points of sex education classes. It’s the Oklahoma right-wing religious folks who are the hypocrites when they try to criminalize abortion at the same time they fight against sexual education classes in our schools. That’s the real double standard.
The editorial, and so many like it in The Oklahoman, can make this a suffocating place in which to live. OCRJ is a group with a clear mission that is standing up to express its political viewpoints against a tidal wave of right-wing hypocrisy in this place. They do so in a peaceful, heartfelt and intelligent manner, and this is what they get from the state’s largest newspaper, which won’t even engage them on the real issues. If The Oklahoman wants to send women to jail for having abortions, then it should argue the case and leave the logic and the critical thinking to the grownups in the state.