Patrick B. McGuigan
At a state Capitol signing ceremony for a range of bills, including a measure giving her new authority in selecting members of the Oklahoma Board of Education, Governor Mary Fallin today (May 24) said the state legislative session that concluded on Friday (May 20) was “one of the most successful and productive sessions in state history.”
Fallin and others at the session touted the significance of government efficiency and information technology reforms she signed at the event in the large conference room of the state Capitol. However, education reforms pasts, present and future were also a subject of discussion at the event. The governor, in fact, linked this year’s efficiency drive in other parts of government to school finance issues.
One bill she signed was Senate Bill 435, co-sponsored by state Sen. John Ford of Bartlesville and Speaker of the House Kris Steele of Shawnee. The two Republicans pressed the measure changing the selection process for members on the state Board of Education.
The new law gives governors power to appoint one board member from each of Oklahoma’s five congressional districts, and one at-large member. The Superintendent of Public Instruction will be the seventh member of the board. The law takes effect 90 days after this week’s “sine die” adjournment (Friday, May 27).
Early this month, the current state Board of Education voted 3-1 to enhance the powers of the current Superintendent, Janet Barresi, in line with provisions in House Bill 2139. Fallin has already, under past state law, make one appointment to the education board, Phil Lakin of Tulsa.
Republicans moved to change public school governance at the state level in the wake of a searing confrontation between Barresi and members of the Board, all of whom had been appointed by former Governor Brad Henry. Gov. Fallin and other Republicans rallied in support of Barresi immediately after that battle.
Throughout the 2011 session, a steady tide of conservative education reforms advanced. Proposals passed to create letter grades for schools and end social promotion.
Another major reform ended the state’s authorization of “trial de novo” for teachers dismissed from public schools, effecting granting more power to local public school boards.
For some reformers, the greatest achievement was enactment of an opportunity scholarship program allowing students in failing schools to access scholarships financed through a tax credit program, gaining resources they can use at the school of their choice. That measure built on the success of a 2010 program granting scholarships to children with special needs.
During dialogue with reporters at today’s signing ceremony, Fallin defended decisions made about government funding of schools in this year’s budget process. Fallin noted that she supported passage of supplemental appropriations in both the House and Senate this session. She also pointed to the announcement she made recently, with School Lands director Harry Birdwell, that a projected (and record-setting) $124 million in money will be awarded to public schools this year.
In response to a question from CapitolBeatOK, the chief executive said that high administrative costs in public schools were “something we’re going to look at.”
The governor said a reason she pushed for the modernization reforms is that they are needed in government as a whole, and could provide lessons for school financial governance, as well. The vendor system reforms, greater efficiency in delivery of some services, “how we pay the bills, our purchasing systems,” are apparently issues for future deliberation.