KGOU

From Teacher Pay To Free Speech, Education Bills Queue Up For Session

Jan 30, 2018

With the start of the 2018 legislative session eight days away, lawmakers have submitted a flurry of proposals related to education.

They range from the expected — proposed salary boosts and other financial compensation for teachers — to the unexpected, like bills to allow schools to sell and place ads on school buses and to permit students to apply their own sunscreen.

The intent of many other proposals is still unknown, as many education-related bills were submitted as “shell bills,” written with no substantive text and to be amended later.

“Historically, we don’t get too excited about every bill. We know that most of them go by the wayside,” said Shawn Hime, executive director of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association. The group is tracking almost 400 bills this session and is especially focused on teacher pay and a long-term funding plan for education.

“Sometimes, we have to get to a crisis level before we have people step up to be statesmen and leaders and ensure that we find a solution. I think we’re there now,” Hime said.

The session starts Feb. 5. Here’s what we’re watching:

Lunch shaming. Senate Bill 1104 would curtail practices that embarrass students whose school lunch accounts are overdue, such as throwing away meals, denying a student a regular meal or requiring a student to work off his or her debt. It also would require schools to beef up efforts to qualify low-income students for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program.

School choice. House Bill 2732 would require private schools that receive vouchers, credits or scholarships from the state to make public information about the school’s special education program. HB 3537 would raise the cap on the state’s Equal Opportunity Scholarship program, which provides tax credits in exchange for donations to private schools, to $10 million per year.

Teacher pay. There are many repeated attempts to increase teachers’ minimum salaries by $3,000 to $5,000. Taking a different tack, teacher-turned-legislator Rep. Jacob Rosecrants, D-Norman, proposed HB 2733, which would implement a high-need bonus of $2,500 per year for National Board Certified teachers who work in high-poverty schools.

Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit organization that produces in-depth and investigative journalism on important public-policy issues facing the state. More Oklahoma Watch content can be found at www.oklahomawatch.org

Virtual charter schools. HB 3049 would prohibit virtual charter schools from using funding from Oklahoma to operate schools in other states. Epic Charter Schools, the state’s largest virtual charter, expanded to California in 2016; three others (Insight, Oklahoma Virtual Charter Academy and Connections Academy) operate as part of national chains with locations in other states. Rep. Justin Humphrey, R-Lane, said he would like to see virtual schools held to a higher standard of accountability. “(The bill) is to make sure Oklahoma money stays in Oklahoma,” he said.

Seclusion rooms. HB 2526 would prohibit schools from placing students with significant cognitive disabilities in seclusion.

Charter schools. Several bills would prohibit the state Department of Education from sponsoring a charter school, which it did twice in 2017 after local school boards declined to sponsor the schools. The bills include HB 3130 and HB 3446. A related measure, HB 2571, wouldn’t prohibit the board from sponsoring a charter, but it would require increased vetting of the charter school application.

Free speech on campus. House Speaker Charles McCall’s HB 3586 would limit how universities could respond to hate speech, including “ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable or even deeply offensive”. An example might be the University of Oklahoma’s 2015 racist chant controversy, in which two students withdrew from the university and the Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter was shut down. Similar bills have been filed in Florida and Georgia.