Senate Review


December 6, 2018

With two-thirds of Oklahoma's population now living in two urban Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas (SMSA's), rural Oklahoma is struggling to keep its economic assets. However, the state's land area is still 80% rural.

Since the 1980s, Oklahoma City and Tulsa SMSAs have drastically increased in population while rural Oklahoma has remained constant or declined. 

As a result of Oklahoma's concentrated population shift, there has been an increase in legislators whose districts are partially or completely within these two metropolitan areas. As a result, OKC and Tulsa metro legislators have been voting for Oklahoma's assets to go to their urban districts. 

There's a battle between urban and rural Oklahoma and there is a significant strain because of it. Cities have increased taxes within their limits to upgrade streets, water, schools and emergency response systems. Their schools are overcrowded, and there's constant concern from leaders about providing a sufficient water supply for their growing populations. These are legitimate concerns the two major cities must remedy.

However, when raising taxes to meet the needs of these two cities, there's a threshold of resistance. Subsequently, elected urban leaders have worked to transfer any potential assets from rural areas to their cities.

One recent example was the request from urban legislators to use local ad valorem for teacher salaries. Fortunately, State Question 801 was narrowly defeated by voters in November. With certified teachers in limited supply (resulting in over 2000 emergency certifications to fill positions), metro legislators supported SQ 801. Had SQ 801 passed, it would have created an inequity between rich and poor public school districts. In most cases, the urban areas have the wealth.

However, student numbers in the OKC and Tulsa school districts are increasing at an alarming rate. These metro area school districts also have a 50% "English as Language Learners" (ELL) student population, which has increased education costs per student.

SQ 801 would have allowed school districts to use the 5 mill building fund evaluated by property assessment in providing additional dollars for teacher salaries.

Since local dollars are the foundation of funding education, the property assessment of rural compared to urban creates a problem for rural school districts. Subsequently, under the Education Equalization Funding Formula, the poorer the school district, the more it depends on Oklahoma appropriated funds. 

In simple terms, urban property is evaluated at a higher rate than rural areas. Farmers need the economic assistance to help them in a volatile business. However; this places rural school districts at a money problem when local funds are not available.

Without local property taxes to fund its schools, it would have been impossible for rural Oklahoma school districts to compete with the wealth of urban communities to hire quality, certified teachers and staff had SQ 801 passed.

Another problem for rural school districts was the creation of charter schools. Both Oklahoma City and Tulsa have taken advantage of the 1999 Charter School Act, creating 29 charter schools within their urban areas. Every new student that enrolls in a charter school district takes needed per-pupil dollars from a poverty-stricken rural district. The rural schools were hit the hardest when dollars were reduced during the state's revenue failures following the global collapse of the energy sector.

Yet, when comparing student numbers, the rural school districts have more students, lower administrative costs, greater miles to travel to school, better test scores, graduation rates, and parental satisfaction than the newly created charter schools.

Urban areas require food for its citizens that comes from those in rural Oklahoma who raise the crops and animals. Farm families need public schools to educate their children. Subsequently, any transfer of funding away from rural schools weakens the third most important industry in our state.

If any new charter school is created, it should first have the support of parents and it shouldn't be created without a set minimum enrollment before the first day of classes. And Charter Schools should be required to have a minimum requirement for enrolled students of successful coursework completion before receiving state funds.

The legislative session, which starts Feb. 4, 2019, will bring a new round of the battle between urban and rural legislators with both sides representing the constituents who elected them.

To contact me at the Capitol, please write to Senator Ron Sharp, State Capitol, 2300 N. Lincoln Blvd. Room 429, Oklahoma City, OK, 73105, email me at [email protected], or call (405) 521-5539.



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