The debate over SB 834, the bill that would lift various mandates currently binding on public schools and make it easier to terminate teachers, has been one of the most contentious this legislative session.The bill passed both the House and Senate on virtually straight party lines, and is awaiting action by the Governor. (Update: Governor Henry vetoed the bill on May 8th)

The bill has deeply divided the state’s education coalition, with school boards and administrators strongly supportive and teachers vigorously opposed. We have good friends on both sides, so we decided to ask two of our friends – Cathy Burden, Superintendent of Union Public Schools, and Elaine Hobson, President of the Oklahoma Speech and Hearing Association – to make the case for and against SB 834. Here are their submissions.

For SB 834 – Dr. Cathy Burden, Superintendent, Union Public Schools

The lament surrounding public education often begins with “if only schools would operate more like a business” or “schools need to transform themselves to meet the needs of today’s students” or “public schools need to be more innovative like charter schools”. From the Superintendent’s perspective, approval of SB 834 would provide the flexibility to legitimize these complaints since districts would be empowered to make decisions locally through their elected school boards rather than be micromanaged and constricted with unproductive legislative mandates.

SB 834 would allow Oklahoma public schools to be on a level playing field with charter schools giving them freedom to prioritize how to spend funds, schedule instruction and staffing, and provide innovative ways to address the needs of their unique communities. With SB 834 accountability would increase, eliminating the excuse that legislative mandates constrain the district’s ability to creatively provide relevant instruction or force us to retain poor teachers.

There is a current level of protection for teachers that is enjoyed by no other class of employees in any other business. The cost of terminating one teacher in Union exceeded $65,000 because the trial de novo benefit automatically takes such cases to district court. Oklahoma teachers are tenured earlier than in many other states and there are few reasons available in law to replace them with higher quality instructors.

Excellence in student performance and fiscal responsibility for taxpayers’ dollars are better ensured by empowering local school boards and educators to work together to make decisions. Since good teachers are the greatest asset of a district, SB 834 could encourage them to participate more at the local level in decisions that affect them and their students. With possibly the best of intentions, the legislature has tried to establish inputs to guarantee standardization but that technique has led too often to mediocrity. Current legal mandates do not allow educational leaders to adjust class sizes, staffing patterns, dropout prevention programs, and budget priorities to transform learning opportunities. By approving SB 834 educators will remain accountable for student achievement, but at least they would have the ability to decide what is best for their students and how to accomplish the task.

Against SB 834 – Elaine Hobson, President, Oklahoma Hearing and Speech Association

Senate Bill 834, ironically called the Schools Empowerment Act, will actually have the effect of eliminating many important programs currently provided in Oklahoma public schools. Without these specific program requirements written into the law, the state will not be required to regulate, fund, or oversee, and local schools will not be required to provide, numerous vital programs and professionals.

The bill started as an attempt to reduce mandates for public school operation to those skeleton procedures currently required of charter schools. Charter schools, whether you like them or not, are far different from public schools and have no mandates to provide things as basic as counselors, librarians, class-size limits, and any teacher pay above the state minimum, including the 5% additional mandate for Special Education teachers. Teacher aides are not required to have a high school diploma.

ALL the above hard-won reforms, and many others, such as full-day kindergarten, gifted and talented programs, teacher preparation time, teacher group insurance, tenure and teacher rights, even the length and number of the school day, would NOT be regulated or required in any public school in Oklahoma if this bill is signed into law!

Most of us know that when these provisions are not stipulated as mandatory by state law, our poorly-funded local districts will not voluntarily be able to fund them. They will quickly disappear. The bill would delete the requirements for all these programs from 20% of our schools each year for 5 years, until all Oklahoma schools are affected.

SB 834 has been opposed by many groups, and after traveling from the Senate to the House and back again, is altered only slightly since its first debut. A few of the most potentially litigious provisions have been removed (i.e., lack of tornado drills, coach training in safety, AIDS prevention, reporting child abuse.) The bill is supported by a few administrators and some school boards, who would have more direct control, and could spend less money on students’ programs and employees. Experienced teachers could be fired at will, for political or economic reasons, because they lose tenure rights under this scenario. First-year teachers are the easiest to control and cost the least.

A shortfall in the state budget is foreseen for next year, and the legislature’s most vulnerable and innocent targets will be our school children. If this bill becomes law, there will be no stopping the cuts to our schools. If we neglect education, even for a few years, we will cheat our school students of the solid foundation they need to be successful and make Oklahoma successful.

An Oklahoma student of today may be your future doctor, your next-door neighbor, your future son-in-law, or even your future Governor! I know my grandchildren have great futures ahead of them in Oklahoma. My grandson will be in third grade and my granddaughter will start kindergarten in August of 2009. I want their public school to be as intact, as complete with all its necessary programs, next fall, as it has been this year.

SB 834 is currently on the governor’s desk, and if not vetoed, will begin dismantling public schools this fall.

We encourage you to weigh in with your own thoughts on SB 834 by leaving a comment.  If there are topics on which you’d like to contribute an entry for this blog, let us know.