Benge presses charter school expansion, House committee agrees

With direct support from House Speaker Chris Benge, legislation giving Oklahoma students more public school options has passed a House committee.The bipartisan action continues strong momentum for expansion of public charter schools this year.

Speaker Benge, in an interview with CapitolBeatOK, said, “Oklahoma needs educational choice. Education is improved as we allow diversity of options, including home schools, private schools, and public schools, with public schools including better and stronger charter schools.”

“I have come to admire charter schools because of the creativity of those who operate outside the box to deliver educational services to those who need them. Charter schools are innovative and effective. I believe this new law will make charter school better and stronger,” Benge said.

Senate Bill 1862, by House Speaker Chris Benge and Senate Pro Tem Glenn Coffee, allows federally recognized Indian tribes and cities of more than 300,000 in population to establish charter schools.The legislation also removes caps on the number of new charter schools allowed each year.

Asked what he thought the response of Governor Brad Henry might be to final passage of the measure expanding charter schools in Oklahoma, Benge told CapitolBeatOK, “I think there’s a good chance he will sign a bill or bills this year. We have been in conversations with the executive branch on ways to position Oklahoma for the ‘Race to the Top’ competition, and to advance that process.”

Speaker Benge observed that support for charter schools may be one of the few areas where he is in agreement with President Barack Obama.

Under the proposed new law, the State Education Department would publish a list of all vacant school district buildings for possible use by charters.The bill also designates charter schools as local education agencies for purposes of federal funding and eligibility to receive bond funds.

“More choice is never a bad thing when it comes to helping our students receive a quality education,” said Rep. Lee Denney, a Cushing Republican, in her statement sent to CapitolBeatOK. Denney, who presented the bill in committee this morning, said “Our state has seen much success with our current charter schools, and this legislation will allow us to build on those achievements.”

In prior advocacy for charter schools, Denney has said, “High standards will remain in place as we expand out state’s public school offerings. We can’t be so scared of change that we miss an opportunity to be innovative.”

The bill passed the House
Common Education Committee after a 10-4 vote. Supporting the measure
were Reps. Gus
of Goodwell, Ann Coody of
Lawton (the committee chairman), Doug Cox
of Grove, David
of Oklahoma City, Tad Jones
of Claremore, Sally Kern
of Oklahoma City (vice chairman of the panel), Earl Sears
of Bartlesville, Jabar
of Tulsa, Dan Sullivan of Tulsa and Kris Steele
of Shawnee. Shumate is a Democrat; the remaining supporters are
Republicans. Steele is Speaker-designate.

Voting against S.B. 1862 were four Democrats: Samson Buck
of Ardmore, Ed Cannaday
of Porum, Joe Dorman
of Rush Springs, and Jeannie
of Tulsa.

S.B. 1862 will next be considered in the full House.

Also passed by the House Education Committee on Wednesday, April 7 is Senate Bill 2330, which creates the Empowered Schools and School Districts Act.The bill would allow schools, groups of schools, or districts to become empowered schools through the State Board of Education. Schools or groups of schools may be eligible for waivers from certain statutory, regulatory, or district requirements if the law passes. Remaining in effect would be certain requirements touching participation in the Teachers’ Retirement System, the state testing program, the federal No Child Left Behind Act, and the accountability system.

The bill, authored by Rep. Denney, passed the committee with a vote of 12-1. Rep. Dorman cast the only opposing vote. Supporting the measure in the House Committee were Blackwell, Buck, Cannaday, Coody, Cox, Dank, Jones, Kern, J. McDaniel, Sears, Shumate, and Sullivan.

S.B. 2330 will next be considered in the full House.

Both Coffee and Benge are strong advocates of charter school expansion, increasing chances for all the proposals working through the legislative process right now.