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Oklahoma Watch

Audiologist Jillian Detwiler reviews a patient’s hearing aid function at the John W. Keys Speech and Hearing Center in Oklahoma City. Detwiler oversees the Cabaret Hearing For Seniors Program, which provides high-quality hearing aids for $100 a pair.
Warren Vieth / Oklahoma Watch

When the government began providing health coverage to millions of older Americans five decades ago, it specifically excluded hearing aids.

Hearing loss among the aged was not a life-endangering medical condition, the reasoning went. Good hearing was not considered essential to good health.

That view has changed. Hearing specialists say the consequences of untreated hearing loss can be substantial, from impaired job performance and damaged relationships to social withdrawal, anxiety, depression and possibly even accelerated dementia.

As Budget Deal Remains Elusive, Inaction Could Cost State

Oct 11, 2017
Oklahoma Capitol
ensign_beedrill / Flickr Creative Commons

Each passing day without a deal to bridge the state’s $215 million budget shortfall means less potential revenue will be available if lawmakers pass one or multiple tax increases.

An Oklahoma Watch analysis of state projections shows that each day that lawmakers don’t pass the $1.50-per-pack cigarette tax would cost the state between $680,305 and $712,265 in potential new revenue, depending on what calculations the state uses.

Oklahoma State House of Representatives

Republican and Democratic leaders blamed each other Wednesday for the ongoing budget impasse. House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, abruptly canceled an expected vote on a proposed cigarette tax increase and announced the House would adjourn until a budget deal is reached.

Ramona Roberts, a special education teacher in Jenks Public Schools, works with students Tim Foster (center), Michael Copeland (left), Elijah Sexton (bottom right) and Hunter Falconer (right). Jenks has had special education teacher vacancies in the past,
Sherman Merchant / Jenks Public Schools

Special education teachers have become so scarce that districts face fierce competition to find and keep good candidates and sometimes leave open positions unfilled.

That’s why late one night in August, Ponca City Public Schools Superintendent Shelley Arrott sprang into action when she heard the distinctive ding of her cell phone. The alert meant a job application had been submitted online to the district. She scrambled to arrange an interview the next morning for the applicant.

elementary school library
Jacob McCleland / KGOU

Reducing schools’ use of emergency certified teachers by 95 percent and boosting high school graduation to 90 percent are some of the goals set by the state Education Department in its plan for education under the Every Student Succeeds Act.

The state also proposes attacking hunger in schools and is considering forcing failing schools that are on a four-day school week to change their calendar.

Oklahoma Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb speaks to a group in Enid in October last year.
Billy Hefton / Enid News & Eagle

A nonprofit foundation created by Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb has raised more than $850,000 since it launched to much fanfare in late 2015 and will soon roll out its first major initiatives.

Newly released IRS filings show the E Foundation for Oklahoma, a tax-exempt public charity that is allowed to shield the names of its donors, more than doubled its first-year fundraising total of $237,000 by taking in $622,500 in 2016.

In Search of New Ways To Tame Opioid Crisis

Sep 18, 2017
Images Money / Flickr

Oklahoma is among the nation’s leaders in combating the opioid epidemic in some ways, but lags in others.

The question of what more Oklahoma can do to reduce the hundreds of fatal overdoses from prescription painkillers each year will hover over the 2018 legislative session. A commission chaired by Attorney General Mike Hunter plans to recommend by Dec. 1 new strategies for attacking the problem. Some or all of its proposals will be folded into legislation.

I Voted Sticker
Dwight Burdette / Creative Commons

Faced with low approval ratings, Oklahoma legislators are already seeing signs that they could be up against greater competition in trying to retain their seats in the 2018 election.

Campaign fundraising records indicate that 13 lawmakers have already drawn challengers – a sharp increase over the number that had filed by this stage in the 2016 election cycle. By the end of August 2015, just one lawmaker had drawn an opponent.

Autopsies Reveal A March Of Infant Deaths Tied To Unsafe Sleeping

Aug 25, 2017
Taffy Henderson, a maternal and child health promotion specialist with the Oklahoma City-County Health Department, puts a doll into a crib that is meant to show what a safe-sleeping environment looks like. Henderson uses the crib to demonstrate safe-sleep
Jeff Raymond / Oklahoma Watch

In October of last year, a 2-month-old infant from Kiowa County died after co-sleeping with her parents.

Her mother woke up to find her father’s arm partially obscuring her face, according to an autopsy report, which attributed her death to probable asphyxiation due to “overlay.”

In May of last year, a 6-month-old Tulsa County infant died from suffocation after co-sleeping with an adult and a sibling on an adult bed. The baby was found unresponsive between the mattress and wall with his face in a pillow.

New Rating System Proposed For Virtual Schools

Aug 11, 2017
Stephen Chin / Flickr

The state agency that oversees virtual schools has proposed a new grading system to improve oversight of the schools, which have experienced persistent low academic performance coupled with climbing enrollment.

Questions Linger On Dismissal Of Charges In Hofmeister Case

Aug 7, 2017
Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister takes questions from reporters Tuesday after criminal charges against her and four others were dismissed.
Oklahoma Watch

Just as suddenly as they appeared in November, criminal charges against Oklahoma schools Superintendent Joy Hofmeister disappeared on Tuesday. And the reasons remain a mystery.

At a news conference, surrounded by her attorney, family and supporters, Hofmeister appeared elated and relieved. She and four others no longer faced charges of conspiracy to circumvent campaign finance laws in Hofmeister’s 2014 bid for office.

Latino Legislators Remain Few But Represent Range of Districts

Jul 21, 2017

In just under one year, the number of Hispanics in Oklahoma’s statehouse has jumped 200 percent.

But that’s only because the election of one man to the House in November and another to the Senate last week brought the number of Hispanic, or Latino, lawmakers up from one to three.

a stack of dollar bills with a stethoscope and bottle of pills
James Martin / Flickr

Oklahoma is preparing to unveil a $350 million plan designed to reduce health insurance premiums and avert a scenario where the state is left with no provider offering plans on the federally run marketplace.

But the effort comes with a catch:  The more than 1.7 million Oklahomans who receive health insurance outside of the marketplace, including from employers, would pay more – a per-person fee of up to $60 a year.

The fee is part of a federal waiver the state is seeking to begin a reinsurance program through the Affordable Care Act or the GOP’s proposed replacement plan.

Pre-K students in Broken Arrow Public Schools work on an activity in the classroom. The school district is one of several that is increasing the maximum number of pre-K students per class sizes above 20 students.
Broken Arrow Public Schools.

Small classes are a cornerstone of pre-K, but some districts are now raising a long-held cap on the number of students, a move that could dilute Oklahoma’s most admired and arguably successful educational initiatives.

Like many other states, Oklahoma limits pre-K classes to 20 students. When there are more than 10 students, the classroom teacher is supposed to have a full-time assistant.

But a 2016 change in state law has inadvertently opened the door to larger pre-K classes.

prison bars
mikecogh / Flickr Creative Commons

A legal challenge, partly spearheaded by Oklahoma leaders, has blocked the federal government from setting limits on how much inmates and their families can be charged for in-state telephone calls.

The U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2-1 decision Tuesday that the Federal Communications Commission exceeded its authority in creating a national rule that sought to cap fees on intrastate phone calls for the first time.

Alekza Quinonez, 10, studies reading in a summer school class at Cesar Chavez Elementary School in Oklahoma City.
Dustyn Rappe / Oklahoma Watch

Oklahoma is raising the bar on its pivotal, high-stakes reading test administered to third graders, which is likely to leave more students at risk of repeating the third grade.

Twelve percent of third graders, those who scored “unsatisfactory” – the lowest level – did not meet criteria for automatic promotion in 2016.

The state agency that handles juvenile offenders is making some fundamental changes to the way it operates. The Oklahoma Office of Juvenile Affairs is undergoing a major shift in culture away from being a corrections’ system to more of a mental health and treatment agency. KGOU partner Oklahoma Watch has more.

classroom floor
Jacob McCleland / KGOU

Students as young as pre-K can be, and are, suspended from Oklahoma schools for as long as the remainder of the school year for violating school rules.

A proposal working its way through the Legislature would expand that by mandating lengthy suspensions for elementary students as young as third grade for assault or attempted assault against a teacher, school employee or volunteer. Currently, a default punishment of suspension for the rest of the semester and entire next semester starts in sixth grade.

Oklahoma Watch

State lawmakers are officially at the one-quarter point of this year’s legislative session after wrapping up four weeks’ worth of work.

So far only one bill – the Real ID compliance act – has made it through the Legislature and been signed into law by Gov. Mary Fallin. And there remains plenty to do to find a solution to the state’s $878 million budget gap and tackle the hundreds of bills that remain at alive this point.

Oklahoma Secretary of Finance Preston Doerflinger speaks during a meeting of the State Board of Equalization in Oklahoma City, Monday, June 20, 2016.
Sue Ogrocki / AP

Moments after explaining how another state revenue failure will require millions of dollars of mid-year budget cuts, Secretary of Finance Preston Doerflinger issued a warning to lawmakers and top state officials.

“I don’t know how much more I can emphasize that the time for action is now,” he said at last week’s Board of Equalization meeting, at which the group also certified revenue figures that show an $878 million shortfall for next year. “It’s not a game. We need new revenue.”

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