Editor’s Notebook: Education standards, academic testing and school choice

OKLAHOMA CITY- From an editor’s notebook, a framework for new Oklahoma public education standards emerges, a legislative panel wants to reduce the number of standardized tests in schools, and Education Savings Accounts for Oklahoma parents and children are put on hold for a year.

In other news, U.S. Sen. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma, leads a bi-partisan plea to preserve parental choice for children in District of Columbia schools.
The state Board of Education has approved subject matter standards for English Language Arts and Mathematics. A framework for the process was established in House Bill 3399, passed in 2014, the measure which most notably repealed the Common Core in Oklahoma. Board approval of the new process came in a unanimous vote last week.

Under H.B. 3399, the state Education Department was tasked to work with the Higher Education Regents, the Career Tech Board, and the Commerce Department to develop English and Math standards in time for the 2016-17 school year.

Recent steps advance the legislative intent expressed last year, but Common Core’s critics oppose any steps that could bring that controversial curriculum design back into public school planning. Their suspicions have been bluntly expressed as the standards process design has advanced, and as the Legislature looks at testing options for the future.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister, a critic of Common Core during her 2014 campaign, commented optimistically, 

Time is of the essence with an undertaking this sizable and important, but the process is now in place for the creation of excellent academic standards. I am pleased that we are now under way, and I am grateful to the steering committee members for their dedication and hard work.

Speaker of the House Jeffrey Hickman, R-Nacoma, released a statement supporting the state Board’s actions: “I am extremely pleased to hear that we have reached this point and the in depth process of creating superior academic standards that are truly Oklahoman can begin. I cannot emphasize enough, however, that time is of the essence if we are to have standards and meet the deadlines that were set by last year’s legislation.

We are now almost a year since the Legislature voted in favor of creating superior standards and the Governor signed the measure into law. It’s unfortunate that it has taken so much time to get to this point, but I am glad we now have a process in place for the standards development to begin.

Former Superintendent Janet Barresi, whom Hofmeister defeated in last year’s Republican primary, had proposed a process but her term ended without action from the Board.
On a 10-5 vote, the House Common Education Committee sent Senate Bill 708 to the floor of the lower chamber. The measure, crafted by Sen. John Ford, R-Bartlesville, the powerful Senate Education Committee Chairman, aims to slash the raw numbers of standardized tests public school students must navigate.

State Rep. Dennis Casey, R-Morrison, commented in a press release, “We have heard repeatedly from educators about how over-testing disrupts Oklahoma education. This legislation will leave in place those tests that are required by federal law in grades three through eight.” Federal law requires tests in core learning areas such as English, math and science.

Other tests, such as the arts assessment, fifth grade social studies and writing, seventh grade geography and eighth grade social studies and writing will be eliminated. This would free up some of the time districts and schools devote to testing. The more time we give our teachers to teach, the better prepared our children will be.
Last week, Sen. Clark Jolley, R-Edmond, pulled back Senate Bill 609, the proposal he has co-authored with state Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City, to create Education Savings Accounts for students in elementary and secondary education.

Sen. Jolley, who runs the Appropriations Committee in the upper chamber, said he is committed to helping all Oklahoma children receive the best education possible, whether it’s through a public school, a private school, or some other alternative, including virtual schools. “I firmly believe we need to support Oklahoma parents in their efforts to make the best choice possible for their children. For my wife and me, the choice we made for our children was public education. But that may not be the best option for other parents.”

Education savings accounts would enable more Oklahoma parents to make that choice for their child by allowing them to use part of his or her state education funding to pursue the schooling that best suits a student’s needs. Public schools would actually see an increase in per-pupil revenue as a result of this plan. Other states already offer this option for education, and I am convinced this would enhance our efforts to improve education levels in our state.

“While I believe there is support for passing the measure on the floor this year, I am also very aware that there has been much misinformation about what the bill would or would not do, raising questions and concerns for some legislators and their constituents. So rather than pushing ahead, I plan to work throughout the interim to make sure all our members and our citizens have the facts and can clearly understand the value of offering greater choice to parents seeking the best education possible for their children.”

Last month, several House Republicans joined Democrats to defeat the House version of the bill in committee. House Education Chairman Ann Coody led the opposition.

Senate President Pro Temp Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa, boosted Jolley’s position, saying, “I am grateful to Senator Jolley for his work on Senate Bill 609, and I appreciate his willingness to keep the conversation moving forward on the issue of school choice. We are all committed to providing the best possible educational experience for Oklahoma children, regardless of their socioeconomic status.

A more in-depth discussion throughout the interim will give lawmakers the opportunity to consider in greater detail how expanding educational opportunity for students can help us make progress toward a better education system. Ultimately, our focus must be to improve educational outcomes for all students, and we can do so by working to strengthen schools at all levels.”
Meanwhile, in the nation’s capital, U.S. Sen. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma City, is passionately advocating for children in the District of Columbia who are at risk of losing a popular program that support education options.

In a letter to President Barack Obama, Lankford joined Sens. Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, Dianne Feinstein, D-California, and Tim Scott, R-South Carollina, expressed dismay the administration’s budget proposal cut funding for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program and terminated future funding for this life-changing program.

Feinsten joined her three Republican colleagues in pointing out that money isn’t everything when it comes to educating inner city children. The joint letter continued: âThe high school four-year graduation rate in the district is only 59 percent. Only half of the district’s public school children are proficient in reading. This track record is in spite of spending almost $30,000 per pupil.

D.C.’s public charter schools are also popular with minority parents and children. The charter program has a huge waiting list of 22,000 students, and is widely supported. The bi-partisan quartet told Obama the smaller choice program also deserves his support: For many Washington students, the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program is the only hope for an opportunity to lift themselves out of poverty.