Oklahoma Education Cuts: The Deplorable Results of Republican Leadership

“Deplorable is the only word that comes to mind after yesterday’s announcement from the State Superintendent that a $47 million cut will eliminate programs in our public school systems,” said Sarah Baker, Communications Director of the Oklahoma Democratic Party. “While we are having debates over earthquakes, executions, and more tax breaks for billionaires, we are starving our children of a quality education. Oklahoma ranks at or near the bottom of every marker for public education. And just when you think the only way to go is up, the legislature and their irresponsible and reckless decisions have forced the elimination of funding for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) and other ‘education initiatives,’ and slashed as much as 50-percent of teacher training programs and staff development. And although the Oklahoma Republican Party, just earlier this year, criticized SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program) recipients, they have quite literally just taken food out of the mouths of children through a reduction of school lunch matching funds which address the hunger of thousands of children across Oklahoma who depend on school meals for most or all of their nutritional needs.”

In addition to the numerous cuts that students and teachers will be hit with in the middle of a school year, the prospect of closing or consolidation of entire school districts is a likely future step, sooner rather than later. Rural school districts will face hard decisions in the coming months unless the legislature and Governor decide to act. The Republican legislature fails to make public education a priority at every turn, and we expect them to act no differently this time. In some cases, larger urban school districts have minimal reserve funds to access, but those funds have been dwindling for years and with no relief in sight, could be dried up by the start of the 2016-2017 school year, only eight short months away.

Republicans have controlled the entire system in Oklahoma – from both houses of the State Legislature, to all statewide offices, all the way to the Governor’s office – for six years, and the contemptible conditions of our public schools rests squarely on their shoulders. Oklahoma Republicans have continued to show their lack of concern for Oklahoma’s children, middle class, seniors, and veterans through their quixotic legislative actions to give tax cuts in the middle of one of the worst budget failures Oklahoma has seen. No doubt the same Republican leaders, who pushed though damaging pieces of legislation over the past six years, which have led us to where we are today, will remain unrelenting for the next five months, unwilling to take responsibility for their actions.

Baker went on to say, “In an election year like 2016, candidates will be talking about how they ‘value’ public education, but we have a solid track record for a majority of the legislature that tells parents otherwise. The argument for ‘school choice’ becomes a lot easier for Republicans when they starve public schools of funds and resources, forcing parents to consider long commutes and expensive options because their State Senator or State Representative has refused to take action and properly fund schools in their own districts. This is manipulation at its finest, and Oklahoma is losing.”

Can Our “Middle Class” Be Revived?

The following opinion article was submitted by Kenneth Wells, Chair of Stephen County Democratic Party. The views expressed here do not necessarily equal endorsement of the Oklahoma Democratic Party.

Can Our “Middle Class” Be Revived?

With the loss of the middle-class in the socio-economics of the United States a looming certainty, we can only ask ourselves, “What must happen to rejuvenate a meaningful atmosphere for all to live in?”

The “Middle Class” was (1) the outcome of a transition from an agricultural-based economy to an industrial-manufacturing economy, (2) World War II and (3) the rise of Organized Labor during the next 3 decades.

The transition from agriculture to manufacturing caused a drastic shift in the way people lived. People moved from rural areas, where their closest neighbor might be miles away, to city living – stacked on top of each other – a condition that is still prevalent today.

Modern farming equipment, faster methods of transportation and the promise of a more steady income was the downfall of the “family farm.”

World War II not only pulled the United States out of a “Wall Street” and “top heavy wealth” inequality. It also brought the U.S.A. out of the Great Depression. While large segments of the male populations in industrialized worlds were involved in military operations, women were called upon to fill industrial-production vacancies. When the war ended and service men came home, they found their prior production jobs filled by females. That brought about another socio-economic shift – madam now working to add to the family’s income.

Many of those who were drafted or enlisted into the different branches of the military found their educations interrupted which produced a “hole” in their economic advancement. The answer to that problem was congressional legislation – the “G.I. Bill”- which provided funds to returning servicemen/women with which to complete their educations. Tied to the “G.I. Bill” was another “Middle-Class” improvement – U. S. Government-backed financing with which the G.I. could purchase a home.

While all of this was being accomplished, President Harry S. Truman reorganized the U. S. War Department into what is now known as the Department of Defense. This action removed the Air Corps from the Army and created a stand-alone U. S. Air Force. Going one-step farther, he de-segregated ALL of the Armed Services of the United States.

Low wages, unsafe working conditions, child labor and excessive working hours with inadequate compensation were the initial socio-economic problems Organized Labor focused on. Improving those conditions brought about the rise of a class of people who could expect that their families would have a home of their own, enough to eat, a proper education for their children and savings for retirement.

To once again build that same “Middle Class” will require strong socio-economic action by federal and state governments. To overcome today’s inequalities, we will need politicians who are not empowered by financial organizations and/or large corporations donating to their “war chests.” Welfare to corporations which use our highways, railroads and natural resources significantly while paying insignificantly in use taxes, and tax giveaways for companies to relocate or expand, must cease. Those same politicians should introduce a progressive income tax system which disallows entities at the top of the income level to pay a smaller percentage of their income in year-end taxes than the lower income tiers. Sadly, today, there is little hope for this.

This is my last Democratic Opinion Article for the Duncan Banner. I want to thank the Editor(s) for allowing me to share my thoughts and opinions with you for the past three years and to my readers for your support! In the future, with the good graces of the Duncan Banner staff, the weekly Democratic Opinion Article will be furnished by Gary Reddin, Secretary of the Stephens County Democratic Party. Gary is well aware of the trials and concerns facing Oklahomans – from socio-economic inequalities to an inadequate criminal justice system to women‘s rights and beyond.

In preparing my weekly article, I must pay homage to those who assisted me in my endeavors. First, to Jack Guerkink – who is no longer with us – for his expertise and understanding of our “capitalist” system and its misuse by the powerful, and to my wife Koleta, who brought me back onto my intended path when I wandered in my writing!

Kenneth Wells 580-444-2563

twinnwells@gmail.com

facebook.com/stephenscountydemocratparty/oklahoma

While I am no longer a steady contributor to the Duncan Banner I will continue to record my opinions in my Blog, on40acres.wordpress.com and the Facebook page listed above. These posts will also be sent to news agencies as in the past.

Commentary on Justice Reform

The following article can be attributed to Kevin McCray and is republished with consent. 

Kevin McCray President, ODP Veterans Committee
Kevin McCray
President, ODP Veterans Committee

For those of us working on the front lines of the criminal justice system, it’s encouraging to hear that the Governor’s newly appointed Justice Reform Steering Committee is once again giving the Justice Reinvestment Initiative the attention it deserves. The initial implementation group, convened in 2012 to develop policies aimed at curbing an estimated $259 million in additional spending needed to fund the Department of Corrections over the coming years, dissolved in a blur of resignations, finger pointing, and accusations hurled at the Governor’s Office which left much of the law undeveloped and unfunded. Although it’s a positive step that the Governor is recommitted to adopting a progressive attitude toward becoming “smart on crime”, years of legislative shortsightedness leaves us little choice beyond decriminalizing certain behaviors or doubling the budget and building more prisons.

More than a decade of “tough on crime” legislation has seen our prison population rise faster than the growth of our general population. While other states were developing progressive policies aimed at reducing crime and recidivism, Oklahoma’s corrections budget was increasing by 30 percent. Currently, the Department of Corrections is at 119% capacity to the tune of $19,000 a year per inmate, and dangerously understaffed. Given the State’s current budget woes, it’s unlikely the Steering Committee and the Legislature can be creative enough to find the revenue necessary to implement the policies needed for the Initiative to fulfill its purpose. However, it remains vitally important for the fiscal health of our State that policies be adopted to give the Initiative substance despite being problematic to fund.

A centerpiece of the Initiative is to reduce the rate of recidivism, or the number of people who return to prison either for reoffending or not complying with the terms and conditions of their release. On any given day, the state’s courthouses spend an inordinate amount of time and money dealing with defendants struggling to cope while on probation. The list of conditions a criminal defendant must comply with or end up back in jail can be overwhelming particularly for someone with addiction issues, undeveloped skills, and limited transportation and employment opportunities. For the Initiative to achieve reductions in recidivism, policies must be developed to address these issues. In addition to providing enhanced substance abuse treatment and services, a major focus of the Steering Committee must be advancing policies that provide job placement opportunities to those routinely excluded because of a criminal record and the use of criminal history screening on job applications.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, referencing a 2010 study by the Society of Human Resource Management, reported that 92% of employers subjected all or some of their job applicants to criminal background checks. Under the Oklahoma Open Records Act, employers may request criminal records, including arrests, for prospective job applicants regardless of the nature of the job. Although the breadth of the information requested by employers varies, there are no restrictions in Oklahoma on the extent to which an employer can delve into the criminal history of a prospective job applicant. Let’s consider this in light of certain facts.

According to the Governor’s 2015 State of the State Address, 1 in 11 Oklahomans have done some time in prison (approximately 380,000 Oklahomans). Nationally, we have a working age population that includes up to 14 million people with felony records, or about 1 in every 15 between the ages of 18 and 64. If you include misdemeanors and arrests, that percentage rises to about 1 in 5. As the number of people being released from U.S. prisons increases every year, the use of criminal history screening by employers is having a negative impact on our economy and the ability of many to reintegrate into the community. Criminal history questions on job applications not only result in excluding someone otherwise qualified from much needed employment, but also discourage someone from filling out an application to begin with. As a consequence, criminal history screening becomes a significant roadblock to reducing recidivism.

Several states that saw reductions in recidivism rates developed strategies within reform initiatives to get people recently released from prison into jobs and working. Kansas instituted policies to connect released individuals to housing and workforce development services. Michigan created a program that not only provided community based housing for parolees, but also subsidized employers who hired them. Absent the investment needed to implement these types of policies however, the Committee must be creative in identifying solutions. One approach, known as a “ban the box” or “fair chance” policy, is a program that removes the stigma of a criminal record from the application process and increases the pool of qualified applicants.

Combined, nearly 100 cities, counties, and states have adopted policies requiring employers to consider the applicant’s qualifications prior to conducting any criminal background check. Some jurisdictions extend this requirement to private contractors doing business with a city. San Francisco expanded its “fair chance” policy to apply not only to city jobs, but also to private employers, vendors and most housing providers. Boston went so far as to list “ex offender status” as a classification protected under the civil rights laws of the city. The EEOC is of the view that an employer’s neutral policy or practice of using criminal history background checks to screen job applicants can disproportionately affect (i.e., have a disparate impact on) groups protected under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Right Act, and communities such as Boston and San Francisco have taken progressive steps to eliminate such discrimination.

Because the arrest and incarceration rates for Hispanic and African American men are two to three times higher than the general population, an employer’s use of an individual’s criminal history in employment decisions may violate Title VII prohibitions against employment discrimination. The EEOC recommends employers eliminate policies that exclude people from employment based on any criminal record. In addition, employer’s should narrowly tailor written policies and procedures that limit criminal history inquiries to records for which the exclusion would be job related for the position in question, and consistent with a business necessity. Most “fair chance” policies are adapted from the EEOC guidelines established to help protect employers against discrimination claims.

Beyond protecting employers, adopting “fair chance” policies will reduce recidivism, increase public safety, and bolster the economy. According to the National Employment Law Project, employment has been shown to be the single most important factor in reducing recidivism. Two years after release from prison, nearly twice as many employed people with criminal records had avoided contact with the law compared to their unemployed counterparts. People formerly incarcerated with one year of employment had a 16% recidivism rate over a three year period as compared to 52% for all those released from the Department of Corrections. Providing employment opportunities to those with criminal records also increases public safety. For instance, a1% drop in the unemployment rate reduces burglary 2%, larceny 1.5%, and auto theft 1%. Finally, adopting a “fair chance” policy is good for the economy. The Economy League of Greater Philadelphia found that putting 100 formerly incarcerated people back to work would increase their lifetime earnings by $55 million, raise their income tax contributions by $1.9 million, and boost sales tax revenues by $770,000.

“Fair chance” policies protect employers from discrimination claims, reduce recidivism, increase public safety, are good for the economy, and don’t cost a dime. Although having a job is not a guarantee that someone released on parole or probation will not reoffend, unemployment predictably provides opportunity and motive to reengage in criminal activity. Access to employment opportunities is critical for those recently released from prison to make the choices necessary to stay out of the criminal justice system. A steady job not only helps to change ones environment and provide financial support, but also instills a sense of self- worth, dignity, and hope for the future. Providing a large segment of the working age population with criminal records the opportunity to compete for jobs based on their qualifications would kick start justice reform in this State. Let’s join the hundreds of other municipalities, counties, and states that have benefited from similar initiatives. Giving someone a fair chance to work is an Oklahoma value on which we can all agree.

Kevin McCray is an attorney working in Oklahoma City, and President of the Oklahoma Democratic Party Veterans Committee.