A petition drive to boost Oklahoma spending on public education began Thursday and immediately drew criticism from Republican lawmakers.

  A petition drive to boost Oklahoma spending on public education began Thursday and immediately drew criticism from Republican lawmakers.

The HOPE, or Helping Oklahoma Public Education, campaign aims to amend the state constitution and require the Legislature to fund public education to at least the per-pupil average of neighboring states.

Rallies in Sand Springs and Midwest City were held in support of the petition.

At the Capitol, three Republican House members criticized the plan at a news conference. House Education Chairman Tad Jones of Claremore said it would likely force a tax increase, while other lawmakers said it could lead to school consolidation and cuts in road funding.

The petition drive is backed by the Oklahoma Education Association, among other groups, and is intended to collect 200,000 signatures by the first week of November. That goal is well above the 138,970 needed to place the question on the ballot.

Paid circulators and volunteers plan to canvass state fairs and college and high school football games across the state to collect the signatures.

While Oklahoma provides per-pupil funding of $6,900, Missouri, Texas, Kansas, Arkansas, Colorado and New Mexico have an average investment of $8,300 per pupil, according to OEA figures. Oklahoma currently ranks 48th out of the 50 states in per-pupil expenditure.

At Charles Page High School in the Tulsa suburb of Sand Springs, teachers from across the state told stories of doing more with less in Oklahoma's public schools: students who are forced to share textbooks, cutbacks in art classes and extracurricular activity travel and one school's track team running in a parking lot because it lacked the necessary facilities.

"Each year, it's a battle to get our kids what they deserve," said Mike Bynum, who teaches physics and chemistry at the high school and is the head boys basketball coach. "What we're asking is something that goes completely against our nature: we're asking to be average.

"Imagine what we can do if we were just average," he said.

Parent Shelley Ogan, who volunteers for Tulsa Public Schools, described the shortages of supplies most take for granted at any school: printer paper and ink cartridges.

The initiative would require lawmakers to re-prioritize the state budget to fund education and would not require a tax increase, supporters say.

Once the petitions are submitted in November, there is a period to challenge the signatures. After that, the governor can decide to set a special election for voters to decide the question, or the matter would automatically be put on the next general election ballot in 2010, according to the OEA.

"If we want better workers, stronger employees, a well-educated workforce, we have to make public education a priority," said Becky Felts, OEA vice president.


Copyright 2008 The Associated Press.