Professor Smith hopes lawsuits can bring funding to Okla. schools

5 April 2017
James Whisenhunt, Commentary Editor

With a new court makeup and a 30 percent cut to public education over 10 years, Yale National Initiative Planning Director Dr. Elizabeth Smith wants to start a conversation on how the judicial branch can intervene in the situation.

Dr. Elizabeth Smith works with TU as the Planning Director for the Yale National Initiative. The project started at Yale in 1978 but has since expanded to the University of Pennsylvania, University of Delaware and TU. The program, slated to begin next fall, brings in university professors to teach seminars to public school teachers to improve their work in the classroom. Smith notes that teachers are able to select the topics for seminars, which range from “modern self-invention” to “the science, history and impact of DNA.”

On March 13, a guest article by Dr. Smith titled “Using lawsuits to fund our schools: Is it time to try again?” was published by the Oklahoma Policy Institute. The piece focused on the Arkansas Supreme Court case “Lake View School District no. 25 v. Huckabee,” which found that the state was guilty of both inadequate and inequitable funding for schools. As a result, the Arkansas public school system received a funding overhaul.

During her time living in Arkansas, Smith notes that she saw “actual chicken houses that had been converted to schools in rural places.” After the court case, the state put together “a new funding formula that funds everyone at a higher rate,” allocated more funding for ESL and special needs students and created a state building fund that filled in the monetary gaps for schools with lower funding from property tax.

Though the situations in Arkansas and Oklahoma aren’t exactly the same, the Oklahoma Education Association sued the state in 2007 for inadequate funding. Smith explains, however, that the OEA lost the case because the court ruled that they didn’t have standing, meaning there wasn’t sufficient evidence that there was significant damage as a result of the funding.

“Ten years later,” Smith notes, “and we’ve been cut by 30 percent. I think we can find someone to make the case.” Schools are using teachers placed into schools through a last-resort emergency certification, extracurricular programs are being cut, and school districts are being forced down to four-day weeks because of the decreases in funding since 2007. Since the OEA case, there have been four new appointments to the Oklahoma Supreme Court, which may provide a new perspective on the issue.

The Supreme Court also set up a “separation of powers” argument, that the issue of school funding comes down to the legislative branch instead of the judicial. Smith mentions, however, that 30 states in the US have ruled on this issue and she hopes that the new court makeup will mean a change of the court’s opinion on the topic.

Since the issue was last brought to the court in 2007, the situation has evolved and, in Smith’s eyes, become more dire. In an October article published by Oklahoma Policy Institute, “When K-12 schools are underfunded…,” she notes that the money spent on education “amounts to $211 less per student per year in each school.”

She feels that “we are shooting ourselves in the foot if we don’t fund K-12” because it hurts higher education attendance and the state’s economy. By cutting funding at earlier years, Smith argues, it sets up barriers for higher education by making students less competitive candidates for university admission and forcing them into remedial classes, which often don’t count for college credit. This also affects the jobs Oklahomans are able to get: according to a recent Oklahoma Works report, around 60,000 jobs requiring a Bachelor’s degree are unfilled in the state.

Smith hopes that a new legal case with the Supreme Court will help the education system in a state with legislators that cut the budget and voters who turn down propositions to fund schools like the recent State Question 779. In her view, the most important part of the case, and part of what made cases like Swan Lake work, is an individual focus. In 2007, the OEA was representing three school districts, and Smith postulates that “we might have good luck if we can find a group of students or bring it down to the individual level.”