Where are they now? Bills we followed this session (Part 1)

Photo by Matthew Rutledge / CC BY 2.0
Photo by Matthew Rutledge / CC BY 2.0

This year’s Legislative session began with promising ideas for reforms in the areas of criminal justice, elections, and tax credits, as well as a continuation of the debate over modifying past years’ education reforms. Before long, it became clear that lawmakers’ most difficult task would be dealing with a large budget shortfall due to a fall in gas prices, the multiplication of tax cuts and tax breaks, and increasing off-the-top transfers of revenue.

Here we provide a run-down of many of the key bills we followed and how they fared. As the first of a two-part series, this post examines this year’s most important education and criminal justice bills.


  • In April, we wrote about how a “value-added” model for evaluating teachers based on their students’ test scores could potentially become Oklahoma’s next education reform controversy. With the passage of SB 706, lawmakers delayed full implementation of this model until the 2017-18 school year and instructed the State Board of Education and Teacher and Leader Effectiveness Commission to continue studying it. The model will be used to provide evaluation scores for teachers in the coming year, but attaching those scores to high stakes decisions about laying off teachers has been delayed. Once it goes into effect, teachers or principals who receive a rating of “ineffective” for two consecutive years may be dismissed at will by school district. That’s troubling, because as our blog post pointed out, there’s evidence that the quantitative model being developed for Oklahoma will not accurately measure what it claims to measure.
  • We also wrote about the Legislature’s continuing debate over a reform to the Reading Sufficiency Act that requires third graders who do not score high enough on a reading test repeat the grade. Last year, lawmakers voted to allow a team of parents and educators to grant a “probationary promotion” to the next grade if they agree unanimously that moving on to fourth grade is best for the child. However, they made those committees temporary — only lasting until this school year. Under SB 630, lawmakers voted to extend the parent/educator committees through the 2017-2018 school year. SB 630 also extends testing to the first and second graders and adds students who score “limited knowledge” to those at risk of retention or remediation, which means schools could be required to provide intensive remediation for about one-third of all students beginning in the 1st grade.
  • One bill that we warned could seriously harm Oklahoma college students from low-income families did not make it past the final hurdle in the Legislature. HB 2180 could have required all students receiving an Oklahoma’s Promise scholarship to maintain an annual courseload of 30 hours — even more than the threshold for being a full-time student. That could have created a serious hardship for students who needed to work while attending school to support a family. Senate amendments to the bill made it substantially better, but the House would not agree to those amendments so ultimately it stalled in conference committee.
  • A bill that stirred up a fair amount of controversy this year was HB 1749, which banned school districts from allowing automatic payroll deductions for teachers and other school staff to pay dues to the Oklahoma Education Association and American Federation of Teachers. We pointed out that the bill appeared to be legislators’ way of targeting retribution against teachers’ unions for disagreeing with their policies around funding and private school vouchers. HB 1749 was approved by the Legislature and signed by Governor Fallin, but news recently emerged that the law may be unenforceable because of flaws in how it was written. The bill’s author, Rep. Tom Newell, has promised to return to the issue, so we’re likely to see it come up again next year.

Criminal Justice

The continuing crisis of overcrowding and understaffing in Oklahoma prisons continued this year, but it inspired a few measures to reduce the number being sent to prison. These changes are still too limited to have a large effect on incarceration numbers in the short-term, but over time they might bend the curve away from imprisoning so many — especially if they are just the beginning of a shift by lawmakers away from the policies that put Oklahoma in this situation.

  • A couple reforms to Oklahoma’s harsh mandatory minimum sentences were approved this session. Oklahoma has required a mandatory life without parole sentence for anyone convicted of drug trafficking if they had two prior drug-related felony convictions. HB 1574 changes that mandatory minimum to twenty years, while still allowing a life without parole sentence. This bill will affect a small number of cases, and any reduction in prison populations it may lead to won’t happen for twenty years.
  • A reform with greater potential to reduce incarceration rates HB 1518, the “Justice Safety Valve Act”, which allows judges to depart from mandatory minimum sentences on some non-violent crimes. An annual report will be shared online with  the number of departures from mandatory minimum sentences made by each judge in the state during the previous year. Whatever effect this has will depend on judges being willing to use their new discretion over sentencing, and it will depend on voters not punishing those judges who depart from mandatory minimums.
  • In an effort to make it easier for ex-felons to rebuild their lives after serving out their sentences, HB 2168 removes restrictions on obtaining job licenses for professions that do not substantially relate to their crime. The bill changes the language on whether ex-felons can get a licence to become a cosmetologist, pawn shop owner, athletic trainer, marital and family counselor, and several other professions (see the full list here). Before this reform, the law allowed an oversight board to deny their license based on a felony record, no matter what the reason was or what the person has done since. Job licensing restrictions are just one of several ways that Oklahoma makes it harder for ex-felons to rebuild their lives after serving prison or probation. Progress on this issue was also made by House Speaker Jeff Hickman’s HB 2179, which allows nonviolent offenders who are on probation to obtain a commercial driver’s license.

In the next post for this series, we’ll cover what lawmakers did this session around tax breaks, elections reform, and a constitutional convention. We’ll also share some of the big issues that did not get much attention from the Legislature this year. You can see more of the bills we kept an eye on this session on our online bill tracker.

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Gene Perry worked for OK Policy from 2011 to 2019. He is a native Oklahoman and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. He graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a B.A. in history and an M.A. in journalism.

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