Most conversations swirling around education this session are about funding, and these are discussions we should be having. Adequately funding our schools remains a top priority because state aid funding is down $180 million dollars from 2008. While the Legislature passed a teacher pay raise in 2018, Oklahoma schools have not been able to restore staff and program cuts due to years of inadequate funding. Oklahoma schools still need more state aid. However, we will have to wait until the end of session to learn how much growth revenue the Legislature will dedicate to common education.
That said, Legislators filed approximately 2,800 bills this session, and about 250 of those dealt with education. The list below only touches the surface of those headed through the Legislature, but they could have considerable impact on Oklahoma’s schools.
Pushback against last April’s teacher walkout
Last April’s teacher walkout helped secure teacher and support staff pay increases funded by the first tax increase in nearly 30 years. HB 2214 (Rep. Russ) is likely a reaction to the teacher walkout. It would limit teachers’ collective power by prohibiting teacher strikes or school shutdowns, and revoke certification for teachers who violate this law. Similarly, SB 574 (Sen. Allen) establishes a code of ethics which prohibits teachers from engaging with certain political topics or displaying political messages during school hours. Violation of these ethics would be subject to a $1,000 fine or termination of employment. Lastly, HB 1946 (Rep. Lepak), HB 2208 (Rep. Russ) and SB 707 (Sen. Stanislawski) aim to limit or disband the collective bargaining of Oklahoma’s teacher association.
Reinstating the class size moratorium and lifting class size penalties for the earliest grades
In 2010 the Legislature placed a moratorium on penalties for school districts that surpassed class size limits established in 1990. The moratorium will expire this year and absent legislation to extend the penalty restrictions, districts would be fined for class sizes that exceed the 1990 limits. To address this, Sen. Pemberton has introduced SB 193, which would extend the moratorium until the state’s per pupil funding meets the regional average. The bill passed in the Education Committee on February 12th and can now be taken up by the full Senate.
However, legislators have also filed a series of bills (HB 2027, HB 2120, SB 428, and SB 571) aimed to do the opposite by reinstating class size limits for first-through-third grade students. This legislation aligns with research that shows the benefits of small classes in early grades, but if left unfunded, it is unclear how schools will be able to hire the additional teachers needed to meet these requirements.
Teacher and support staff pay raises and retention incentives
Calls for increased teacher pay continue to be at the forefront of discussions about education this session, and Legislators have filed bills with pay increases of up to $3,000 (HB 1957, HB 2186, HB 1780 and SB 800). Sen. Dossett introduced SB 43, which would give support employees a $5,000 increase over three years. It is important to remember that while these bills would establish a new minimum salary schedule, the Appropriations Committee will need to dedicate funding for the increases.
A second set of bills would establish incentive programs aimed to help attract and retain teachers. HB 2261 (Rep. Patzkowsky) would establish a Teacher Incentive Program to provide free tuition to those who complete an accredited teacher preparation program in an Oklahoma public university or college. Similarly, HB 2521 (Rep. Tammy West) would provide college loan repayment to teachers who work in an Oklahoma school in need of improvement. And Rep. Baker proposed HB 2645, which would allow school districts to offer a one-time incentive bonus up to $5,000 to new Oklahoma teachers who return to their district for at least three years.
Bills seek to expand voucher programs
Efforts to expand school voucher programs in Oklahoma are not new, and like in past sessions, a series of bills seek to widen voucher programs by broadening eligibility. SB 360 (Sen. Daniels) and SB 901 (Sen. Treat), would make homeless children and children with incarcerated parents eligible for vouchers that could be used to pay for private schools. These measures, along with two tax credit bills (HB 2621 and SB 407), threaten to shrink the amount of public funding available to traditional public schools. Both bills passed committee on February 13th.
Greater oversight and regulation for virtual charter schools
Continued concerns over dramatic increases in virtual charter school enrollment have prompted a series of bills aimed to promote greater oversight and regulation. An out-migration of almost 500 students from Tulsa Public Schools to EPIC, the state’s largest virtual charter school, has raised concerns over funding and the educational outcomes of students who transfer back to traditional schools with little to show for their online learning. To address these issues, Sen. Sharp introduced SB 82, which would give resident districts greater authority to approve or deny student transfers, and SB 56, which would require virtual charter schools to send attendance records to the resident district and report possible truancy to the Department of Human Services.
Calls to regulate the revolving door for students also extend to teachers who have left traditional public schools for higher salaries at virtual charters. HB 2139 (Rep. Sneed) and HB 2522 (Rep. Tammy West) both amend current statute to include virtual charter schools in the restrictions placed on teacher transfers between districts. Sen. Sharp also introduced SB 54, which would modify virtual charter school funding by tying state aid to student performance rather than weighted average daily membership. SB 212 (Sen. Stanislawski), which passed through committee on February 12th, would decrease the weight used to calculate state aid for virtual charter schools after their first year.
Other funding regulation bills would place greater restraints on how public funding for virtual charters can be used. SB 761 (Sen. Ikley-Freeman) would prohibit virtual charter schools from giving financial payments to families or to offer financial incentives to school employees for recruiting students, and SB 57 (Sen. Sharp) would do the same. SB 52 (Sen. Sharp) would prohibit virtual charter schools from contracting with private companies to offer extracurricular activities such as music lessons or gymnastics.
Calls to regulate virtual charter schools have also pointed fingers at the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board, which currently oversees virtual charter operations and has the authority to approve or deny online charter applications. Two bills, HB 1229 (Rep. McBride) and HB 1859 (Rep. Fugate) would eliminate the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board and transfer its powers to the State Board of Education, which regulates brick and mortar public schools.
Strengthening and regulating brick and mortar charter schools
Brick and mortar charter schools are also a topic of discussion this session. SB 153 (Sen. Stanislawski) would grant charter schools that meet certain requirements additional funding for capital improvement projects. Currently, charter schools do not receive local tax revenue, which traditional public schools use for building expenses, and this bill would divert state aid for these purposes. While SB 153 helps strengthen charter schools, SB 15 (Sen. Sharp) would prohibit the State Board of Education from authorizing charter schools, and limit sponsorship to local boards of education and federally recognized tribes. SB 15 would prevent the Board of Education from overriding local decisions to deny charter school applications, as they they did to sponsor the Academy of Seminole two years ago.
Senate bill changes cutoff dates for pre-K and kindergarten
Oklahoma has been at the forefront of early childhood education since 1998, when it became the third state in the nation to offer universal pre-kindergarten (pre-K). Since that time, Oklahoma’s pre-K programs have received national attention for their high quality, which studies show can reduce the opportunity gap for low-income children. SB 11 (Sen. McCortney) would change how soon Oklahoma children could access these programs. In its original version, SB 11 moved the pre-K and kindergarten cutoff dates from September 1st to July 1st. The bill has since been amended to August 1st. This adjustment would prevent a three-year-old who turns four after August 1st from entering pre-K until the following year, and similarly prevent four-year-olds from entering kindergarten. While the amended version of this bill would impact fewer children, it would still restrict parental choice, and be a step back for students who need pre-K the most.
Eliminating school report card grades, four-day weeks, and state aid formula adjustments
In gearing up for session, Senate Republicans announced their intention to eliminate the four-day school week that 92 districts have adopted to combat budget cuts and attract teachers. SB 441 (Sen. Quinn) and SB 579 (Sen. Stanislawski) would effectively require districts to have five-day school weeks.
For years, Oklahoma educators have called for a revamping of the state’s A-F report card. Concerns stemmed from the single letter grade used to summarize a school’s performance, which many argue does not accurately reflect student growth, and can stigmatize struggling schools. HB 1415 (Rep. Waldron) speaks to these concerns by prohibiting single letter grades for school report cards, while SB 298 (Sen. Boren) modifies the existing A-C definitions and eliminates D and F grades.
While the state aid funding formula can feel daunting in its complexity, nationally it receives high marks for ensuring equitable funding across districts. This past year a task force of lawmakers and educators spent a year examining the formula and proposed changes to update certain categories and weights. SB 362 (Sen. Stanislawski) seeks to address some of these proposals. These modifications, however, would not add any new funding to schools.
Bills open door to better school discipline practices
A slate of promising bills would open the door for schools to adopt alternatives to out-of-school suspension. These bills align with research showing that alternative practices more effectively address student behavior and can help reduce racial disparities school discipline and school suspension. Both HB 1989 (Rep. Nolan) and SB 452 (Sen. Ikley-Freeman) would allow schools to adopt restorative practices in lieu of out-of-school suspensions. Similarly, SB 181 (Sen. Sharp) provides alternatives to out-of-school suspension for elementary students in grades K-5 who cause or attempt physical bodily harm. Finally, if SB 72 (Sen. Ikely-Freeman) is passed this session, Oklahoma would join many other states that have significantly limited the harmful use of restraint and seclusion, which disproportionately impacts students with disabilities. These are bills worth applauding this session.