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It Really Does Matter

April 4, 2021

Sometimes when I follow the happenings of the Oklahoma Legislature, I just shake my head and repeat the mantra I learned from that 1979 Bill Murray classic, Meatballs

So far, the First Session of the 58th Oklahoma Legislature is shaping up to be as bad – if not worse – than the First Session of the 53rd. Let’s review. 

The 2010 election brought us Gov. Fallin and State Superintendent She Who Shall not be Named. It also led to the 2011 legislative session that gave us:

  • Third grade retention law (since significantly improved)
  • A-F report cards for schools (modified several times since, marginally improved)
  • Private school vouchers (since increased)
  • Teacher evaluations tied to test scores (removed from law before ever happening)

This is merely a sample of educational reforms passed (without additional funding, I might add) ten years ago. At the time, it was a low-water mark for public schools. Gradually, though, some of the bad policies improved, or went away entirely. That change happened because we as public school advocates fought for it. 

One notable example of this was in 2015. That year, the Oklahoma Legislature passed HB 2625, which created a committee including parents in the decision-making process regarding the retention or promotion of third graders. In short, parents and educators were united to make sure that a single test score didn’t result in holding students back. Governor Fallin vetoed the bill, and the Legislature quickly and soundly overrode her veto (by a combined vote of 124-19). There wasn’t even floor discussion. They just walked in, voted, and left. It was glorious.

As I watch this year’s Legislature, I find myself feeling low again. Certainly the toll of 13 months of pandemic life and school leadership contributes to that. Just the same, it seems like public schools are under constant attack, maybe to the worst degree since that session ten years ago. This is perfectly illustrated by the happenings of last Wednesday, when Governor Stitt signed two bills with better talking points than impacts. This is from the governor’s press release:

House Bill 2078 and Senate Bill 783 allow for students to attend public schools that best meet their needs and modernize the funding formula to match enrollment counts more accurately.

“This is a monumental day for education reform in Oklahoma,” said Gov. Stitt. “Education is not one-size-fits-all, and these bills allow parents and students to have the freedom to attend the best public school for them regardless of their ZIP code. Additionally, modernizing the funding formula ensures funding follows the student, not the school. These reforms are vital to getting Oklahoma to be a Top Ten state in education and I am proud of this Republican legislature for its dedication to putting students first.”

“Today is a historic day for education in Oklahoma,” said Secretary of Education Ryan Walters. “We have transformed funding for every single student in the state and empowered them to choose a school that best fits their needs. These two bills will work seamlessly together to have an immediate impact on the way we educate Oklahoma’s students and I commend our state leaders for getting this across the finish line.”

HB 2078, authored by Rep. Kyle Hilbert (R-Depew) and Sen. Zack Taylor (R-Seminole), modernizes the education funding formula by basing per-pupil funding on the most recent enrollment data. The previous system gave school districts multiple enrollment figures from which to base their funding, causing some districts to receive state funds for students who are no longer enrolled.

SB 783, authored by Sen. Adam Pugh (R-Edmond), Sen. Kim David (R-Porter) and Rep. Brad Boles (R-Marlow), amends the Education Open Transfer Act to allow students the ability to transfer to another school district at any time, provided the district has space available.

Let’s be honest. We knew he was going to say Top Ten State at some point. It’s similar to how you have that one relative who ends every text with lol. You’ve seen it so much it’s lost all meaning.

The truth about HB 2078 is that it creates more volatility in the funding formula. It makes planning harder for districts. It also doesn’t make the funding follow the student that much, since districts will need to be more conservative with their fund balances to prepare for the unexpected. 

Meanwhile, SB 783 would better be described as an open transfer bill for families with the means to drive their children from one school district to another every single day. Since many of the growing districts in Oklahoma are already at capacity, they probably won’t be accepting many transfers anyway. As a superintendent, I’m happy to provide an education for whoever shows up. I want our schools full, and I stand by the work our teachers do to teach ALL kids, regardless of zip code. I just don’t think the bill is the egalitarian fix all that our state leaders are advertising it to be.

bill signing ceremony

Where is this going, now that I’m already 750 words deep into writing? After all, every educator membership group in the state opposed these bills. They passed anyway, and the governor gleefully signed them into law. Perhaps Bill Murray was right. Maybe it just doesn’t matter what we say or what we do. For whatever reason (or maybe a collection of reasons), there are more bills targeted at punishing teachers, administrators, and school board members than I’ve seen in years. 

My frustration was so high that I even wrote a post over Spring Break – my first topical blog post in over two years. The last straw for me was SB 639, which directly relates to students receiving the Oklahoma’s Promise scholarship. It’s to be expected that our elected officials will from time to time attack the adults teaching kids as well as school district leaders. I wish it weren’t trend behavior, but as the son of a teacher, and a 28 year educator myself, I’ve seen it enough to expect it. This bill, however, was an attack on the most vulnerable students we serve. 

Friday, we received a glimmer of hope. After listening to our membership organizations, along with significant urging from higher education leaders, SB 639 has been revised in committee. They’ve removed the paragraph adding the payback provision. With that change, it’s actually a good bill. And it’s a reminder that we have to continue reaching out to our elected officials. We may not get them to listen every time, but they definitely won’t hear us if we aren’t talking to them.

This year’s Legislature will probably continue meeting for seven or eight more weeks. There are several live bills (both good and bad for public schools) in each legislative chamber. There are last-minute committee substitutes to be made. And as has been the case in years past, we know very little about the behind-closed-door budget discussions between the governor’s staff and the few legislators who get to be in the room where it happens.

Here are a few highlights (all in the House) of what we expect this week:

  • The House Banking, et.al. Committee will hear SB 267 on Monday. This bill would allow any retired educator to return to the classroom after being out for a year. This is a good measure that would help districts staff their classrooms when all the transfer students show up next year.
  • The House Rules Committee will hear SB 634 on Tuesday. This would require new paperwork each year for individuals to have membership dues deducted from paychecks. I don’t see it having much impact on how many teachers, support employees, or administrators join their professional organizations, but it will create a massive paperwork burden. One extremist think tank calls it a measure to protect free speech. That’s nonsense. Each of these employees already have the choice to join or not join. And many who quit do so mid-year. The only real impact will be a significant increase in paperwork. That’s not where I want my payroll department’s attention focused over the summer and at the beginning of the school year.
  • The same committee will also hear SB 962 on Tuesday. This bill would move school board elections to November. Currently, primaries are held in February and elections are held in April (two days from now, in fact). The stated purpose of the bill is to create more engagement in school board elections. The result, regardless of the intent, will be to insert a greater level of partisanship into the process. I personally like that school and municipal elections usually lack that kind of divisiveness and have their separate calendars. Sure, they aren’t always kind, respectful processes, but adding party politics won’t make them any more civil. Here’s a list of committee members, in case you want to reach out to them.
  • A bill that deserves its own separate blog post, SB 895, will likely be heard by the House Appropriations and Budget (A&B) Committee this week, though as I’m writing this, it does not appear on any posted committee agenda. This bill would – and I swear this isn’t one of those times I’m trying to be funny – allow state agencies under investigation to bypass the duly elected State Auditor and Inspector and SELECT THEIR OWN AUDITOR. Gee, what could go wrong. Maybe the better question is who would want something like this to happen? For more on that, I encourage you to read this March 11 Tulsa World article that connects the dots. Here’s a blurb:

An Epic Charter Schools co-founder’s recommendations for how State Auditor and Inspector Cindy Byrd’s office operates found their way into a bill that passed the Senate floor on Tuesday evening.

On Oct. 1, Byrd’s office issued an audit highly critical of Epic’s handling of tens of millions of taxpayer dollars, but Epic has denied criminal wrongdoing and branded the state’s investigative audit report as an attack on school choice.

The next day, on Oct. 2, Epic co-founder Ben Harris and his wife Elizabeth VanAcker each gave maximum campaign donations of $2,800 allowed per election cycle to state Sen. Paul Rosino, R-Oklahoma City, according to public records from the Oklahoma Ethics Commission.

On Jan. 21, Rosino introduced Senate Bill 895, which he authored. It passed off the Senate floor late Tuesday by a vote of 36-9 and next heads to the House for consideration.

Seriously, I encourage you to read the entire article. And the text of the bill. And then reach out to your House member, as well as those on the A&B Committee.

The stakes are too high for those of us who care about public education to remain silent. This year of all years – after all we’ve been through during the last 13 months – what we say and do does in fact matter. We may not get all the wins, but we need to be seen fighting for our students and our schools. 

  1. April 5, 2021 at 1:28 pm

    Since when is it acceptable for our governor to interfere with an investigation of a public entity. To sum it up EPIC school administrators are (totally and unequivocally) guilty of violations that divert tax payers’ money to places it has no places going. This is money from the people who make this state run. I mean the working, middle-class tax-payer. Over $10 million dollars of our money is being used for things other than public education. Yes, I do mean PUBLIC EDUCATION. Our governor didn’t like his cohorts being accountable so he steps in front of them and says back off they’re with me. Crime, dropped charges, campaign donations the day after a meeting. It sounds like a crime novel but it’s a day in the life of the Oklahoma tax payer. There are fewer and fewer of us and it’s getting very hard to stay afloat with private school companies now churning the water. We have to dodge canon balls thrown by the chief pirate, Captain Stitt. He has plenty of helpers loading up and firing at us constantly. Only the swiftest will survive. Keep fighting and wear your life protectors. I can’t see a clearing up ahead

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