Despite all the hoopla this session over the many politically charged bills dealing with wedge issues, there has been some truly positive legislation passed by thoughtful legislators. One of those signed by Gov. Stitt last week is Senate Bill 89, to be known as the “Health Education Act,” by Sen. John Haste, R-Broken Arrow, and Rep. Rhonda Baker, R-Yukon.
Oklahoma ranks 44th out of 50 states, ahead of only Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, and West Virginia, in public health rankings according to U.S. News and World Report. “Public health” evaluates six metrics: mortality rate, suicide rate, smoking rate, mental health, infant mortality rate, and adult obesity rate. A population’s overall health is a strong indicator of the quality of life in a given state, providing insight into access to nutrition, economic challenges, and other barriers to health that may persist within a state. California ranks first in the nation for public health. New Jersey places second followed by New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut.
SB 89 aims to start Oklahoma’s lengthy climb toward better health by amending the subject matter standards for instruction of students in Oklahoma’s public schools. It mandates that “all students shall receive the instruction needed to lead healthy and physically active lifestyles.” By the 2022-2023 school year, the State Department of Education is required to develop a micro-credential for teachers who are assigned the responsibility of teaching health education. It also calls for developing professional development programs designed to help teachers provide instruction in health education and incorporating the curriculum into existing coursework and instruction where appropriate.
The health education curriculum is set to begin in school year 2023-2024. Specifically, SB 89 provides that “the subject matter standards for health and physical education shall include but not be limited to the domains of physical, emotional, social, and intellectual health. Health literacy shall include the ability to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions. Health shall also include the importance of proper nutrition and exercise, mental health and wellness, substance abuse, coping skills for understanding and managing trauma, establishing and maintaining positive relationships and responsible decision making. Physical literacy shall include the ability to move with competence and confidence in a wide variety of physical activities in multiple environments that benefit the healthy development of the whole person.”
Interestingly, the bill received only one “no” vote in the Senate and five “no” votes in the House. The subject matter of the bill alone — teaching health education to kids — is usually enough to generate all kinds of conspiracy theories about the intent of the bill. The properly broad language of SB 89 makes it even more remarkable that the bill passed at all, but especially with such a wide margin, evidencing a measure of bi-partisan respect by members in both chambers toward the authors. Sen. Haste is a Tulsa businessman who has a strong interest in children and youth, especially regarding health, mental health, and education. Rep. Baker is Chair of the House Common Education Committee and is a former middle school English teacher who had spent nearly two decades at the middle school, high school, and collegiate level before being elected to the House. Her primary legislative effort has been toward improving Oklahoma education.