A Senate budget leader is urging the three members of the State Corporation Commission not to sell Oklahoma schools short when they reach a final regulatory settlement with Southwestern Bell.
In a letter to Commissioners Denise Bode, Bob Anthony and Ed Apple, Senator Cal Hobson cited growing public support for a proposal that would make common education technology a top priority in any cash settlement with the telephone company.
"I don't want the commissioners to get the blame for blowing a once-in-a-lifetime chance to improve public education in Oklahoma. They can make this happen if they want it to, but from what I'm hearing, they may be letting a golden opportunity slip through their fingers," said Senator Cal Hobson, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Education.
The three Corporation Commissioners voted yesterday to approve the first-phase of a two-part regulatory settlement with Bell. While the first-phase changes the form of regulation that governs Bell's local phone operations, the second-phase is expected to include a cash settlement that will require the telephone company to make certain investments in Oklahoma. The investments are apparently intended to offset a small part of the increased profits Bell is expected to make with the new regulations.
Two weeks ago, Senator Hobson suggested that Bell be asked to earmark funding for school technology if it was determined that a new method of rate regulation would save it money in the future. The Oklahoma Education Coalition -an amalgamation of public school associations representing thousands of members-has made a similar plea.
"Since we went public with those requests, I've gotten some feedback that indicates the commission and Bell are considering doing something for schools, but the dollar figures I've heard are so small they're almost inconsequential," noted Senator Hobson.
"A token gesture for education technology may get some short-term, positive headlines, but it won't address the long-term needs we have in our public school system. That is going to take a significant investment measured in the hundreds of millions of dollars."
In his letter to the Corporation Commissioners, the legislator pointed out that a $30 million pledge for school technology in a 1995 Bell rate settlement is just a "drop in the bucket" by today's standards. He also noted an increasing public interest in the Bell case that leaned in favor of an investment in education.
"I've gotten dozens of calls from people who are watching this case very closely. They know the value of good public schools and they're aware that the Corporation Commission is in a great position to do something that will improve them. I think their hope is that the commission won't sell our school kids short," said Senator Hobson.