By Patrick B. McGuigan and Stacy Martin
The state Legislature has sent – or soon will send – final versions of measures Republican deem reforms, but which Democrats consider attacks on teachers. Still coming are proposals to fix technical issues in the special needs program passed last year, and a new opportunity scholarship program. Even as progress on conservative proposals is made, Democrats remain critical, noting the majority missed the April 1 deadline for public school funding decisions.
House Bill 2130 would ensure the Superintendent of Public Instruction has clear statutory authority to run the agency as she (or he) sees fit, with limitations on the powers of the Board of Education. A second measure, House Bill 1380, would end the “trial de novo” process Republicans believe has impaired the dismissal of poorly performing educators.
Last week’s deliberations in the state Senate were critical steps in the journey to enactment for both measures. In a sometimes contentious debate on the “de novo” repeal, Sen. Earl Garrison of Muskogee said the bill could undermine career teachers and do away entirely with pre-termination hearings. He also asserted teacher tenure provisions were threatened.
Senator John Ford of Bartlesville, chairman of the body’s Education Committee, said the legislation would provide for a “fuller hearing in front of the local school board,” but end direct appeals to courts. Ford said, “I do not see this bill eliminating tenure.”
In an exchange with another Democrat, Senator Richard Lerblance of Hartshorne, Ford defended the pre-termination process. Senator Jim Wilson of Tahlequah said he was concerned that a local board could carry out a vendetta to get a teacher or teachers fired. Ford said that accountability of boards to voters would help prevent that.
Sen. Wilson asserted the the bill “could do irreparable damage to our classrooms.” Members of the minority asserted the bill’s passage would be step backwards. In his closing remarks, Wilson used stronger opposition language, saying, “These superintendents don’t own that school, and these local boards don’t own that school. All we ask is that teachers have recourse. … We’re going to deprive our children of good teachers.”
Defending the bill, Sen. Gary Stanislawski of Tulsa said it was time to switch the focus of education onto children. Believing that 90 to 95 percent of teachers “still have passion,” he argued, “There’s a few who don’t care anymore.” Stanislawski contended teachers and educators should have the same rights, not more or less, as those serving in any other profession.
In the longest floor speech, Connie Johnson of east Oklahoma City said the local public school district included those who were “the least, the last, and the left out.” She believes some advocates of change are “using schools as pawns in a larger picture.”
In closing remarks, Ford said the bill was part of a broader effort to improve public education. He noted that elimination of trial de novo would not affect the recourse of individuals to fight wrongful termination or discrimination; and would not affect protections in labor law.
Ford said the local school board would be responsive to patrons through local elections. In the end, he said, the proposal would help quality teachers, and eliminates from classrooms those who are not performing. Ford said the bill was “but one of the changes we’ve got to make to improve education.”
The bill passed comfortably, 30-17. All supporters were Republicans. One Republican, Harry Coates of Seminole, joined 16 Democrats in opposition. Sen. Ralph Shortey of Oklahoma City left the floor before the vote. The final tally was held open for more than 10 minutes as members looked for him.
GOP leaders were short of 32 votes needed for an emergency clause. An “emergency” assures laws take effect upon receiving the governor’s signature. Without it, enforcement is prevented for 90 days.
The Senate also passed H.B. 2139, enhancing the powers of the superintendent of public instruction.
In debate, Andrew Rice of Oklahoma City, Senate Democratic leader, noted this was the third or fourth variation of proposals to give more powers to the superintendent, while limiting powers of the state Board.
Rice said the bill flowed from events at the controversial first meeting of Superintendent Janet Barresi with members of the state Board. Sen. Rice asserted all participants had “acted contentiously.” The version of H.B. 2139 in final debate was not as dramatic as earlier proposals, which in Rice’s view was a recognition by the majority that they had overreached. That bill passed 31-16.
As the dust settled, Sen. Ford, who had shepherded both bills to passage, said the legislation “shows the leadership in both chambers is serious.” He noted the measures passed 24 hours after former Florida Governor Jeb Bush visited the Capitol to press for education reforms.
Speaker of the House Kris Steele, in his regular column distributed to state newspapers, said the end of trial de novo will “empower local districts with the ability to obtain and retain competent teachers.” He said, “Proficient teachers must be protected; however, flexibility should exist to allow schools to release ineffective instructors without a cumbersome court trial.” Steele contended the bill “provides an important tool which will allow limited resources to be spent in the classroom, not the courtroom.”
In a session with state Capitol reporters, Speaker Steele responded to criticisms leveled by House Democrats which intensified as the deadline to “fund education first” came and went.
The City Sentinel asked if it might be possible for the Legislature to pass a funding bill at 85-90% of anticipated spending, to allow schools and agencies to begin planning for the coming fiscal year. He said, “At this point, the thought may be that we’re getting close enough” that a final accord is nearing without a stopgap or interim funding step.
House Minority Leader Scott Inman, a Del City Democrat, told The City Sentinel that his caucus was united in opposing efforts to change the powers of the state Board, enhance the authority of the state superintendent of public instruction, and end “trial de novo.” He said, “We’re opposed to the direction the majority wants to take our public schools with more reliance on charter schools and support for voucher programs.”
Inman said Republicans were “eliminating the rights of teachers.” His most pointed criticisms were aimed at “failure to keep the promise made to ‘Fund Education First.'” Inman observed, “They have violated that state law every single year. This year, once again, we’ll have no budget,” by April 1.
Inman asserted, “When ‘Fund Education First’ was created, the Republicans wanted it and passed it. … Since 2005, the Republicans have never made it. In the past they blamed the Democrats for being late with budgets, but they can’t blame us for this. I don’t understand why the governor, the speaker and the president pro tem couldn’t get together and pass a budget for education.”