GOP-backed reforms advance: charters, flexibility, performance

CapitolBeatOK Staff Report

Published: 26-May-2010

Three Republican school reforms advanced in the Oklahoma Legislature today (Wednesday, May 26). One of the trio is on its way to the governor.

Legislative leaders say parents and students will have more choice in education, after House Bill 2753, by President Pro Tem Glenn Coffee, an Oklahoma City Republican, passed the upper chamber with a bipartisan majority of 36-11.

Boosters of H.B. 2753 contend it provides for reform benefiting Oklahoma’s next generation by enacting many charter school reforms. Coffee said the state has taken strong steps in challenging students to excel.

“Charter schools have proven throughout the years to be great catalysts in advancing student achievement,” said Coffee. “H.B. 2753 will create a fertile climate for additional learning experiences that will in turn strengthen Oklahoma’s education system.” Provisions in HB 2753 include:

•                Sponsorship of charters by school districts, technology center districts, and comprehensive or regional institutions in the State System of Higher Education, if the charter school is located in a district with a site on the school improvement list.

•                Sponsorship of a charter school by the State Board of Education if the applicant is the Office of Juvenile Affairs for the purpose of providing education services to youth in the custody or supervision of OJA.

•                Preference for enrollment at charter schools created after the effective date for eligible students who reside in the school district boundaries and who attend a school improvement site.

The bill specifies that administrative service fees of up to 5% retained by sponsors of charter schools shall only be assessed on State Aid allocations and not on any other appropriated amounts. The measure previously cleared the state House, where Rep. Lee Denney of Cushing was chief sponsor.

On the House side, legislation intended to direct more money into school classrooms during this budget shortfall also passed on Wednesday. House Bill 3029, by House Speaker Chris Benge, a Tulsa Republican, includes the following provisions for the next two fiscal years:

1. Suspends library media expenditures

2. Eliminates financial penalties for any district given a deficiency in accreditation status.

3. Exempts districts from having to convene or participate in advisory councils (excluding councils or committees required by federal law or regulation)

4. Allows districts to elect to not adopt, participate or offer professional development programs

5. Freezes only new applications for the National Board certification process and the certification bonuses for new applicants

6. Delays the textbook adoption cycle by two years and allows districts to spend that money for purposes related to the support and maintenance of schools.

7. Allows for districts to spend any carryover money from the current fiscal year for purposes related to the support and maintenance of schools.

“Our current budget shortfall is requiring us to give agencies more flexibility when it comes to the state dollars they are getting. This legislation will allow school districts to spend more of their funds directly on academics and the classroom,” said Benge. “This legislation is a temporary solution that does nothing more than give local school districts some financial leeway until state revenues recover.” Benge and his staff say the reforms have been based on recommendations from school boards and superintendents.

In comments sent to CapitolBeatOK, Jeff Mills, Executive Director of the Oklahoma School Boards Association, said: “During these tough financial times, House Bill 3029 will relax mandates and allow school districts to minimize the impact of budget strains on our students, as well as give the districts a little more flexibility in prioritizing expenses. The OSSBA appreciates the House and Senate’s work in creating short term flexibility for school districts.”

Relaxing mandates for fiscal year 2011 and 2012 will save districts millions of dollars that can instead be used for general operations, Benge said.

While the bill passed the House 64-36 today, opposition emerged from teachers, specialists and counselors. Some of the organized education groups will be working against the bill in the Senate, where it now moves for final consideration.

Finally, the House passed legislation establishing an evaluation system to help determine through transparent, fair measurements how schools, teachers and students are doing in efforts to improve learning and outcomes.

Senate Bill 2033, by Benge and Coffee, allows districts to adopt a salary schedule that provides additional compensation for teachers and administrators who help improve student achievement.

“When it comes to the education of our state’s children, we cannot let the status quo be good enough anymore,” said Benge. “Creativity and innovation in our classrooms needs to be encouraged and rewarded. This legislation will simply reward teachers for going above and beyond to help our children succeed.”

The legislation sets up criteria under the newly-created Oklahoma Teacher and Leader Effectiveness (TLE) Evaluation System that must be included in any performance pay plan, but outside of those requirements, the district can set up its own plan subject to approval of the state Department of Education.

Under the plan, incentive pay will remain optional for districts. Any pay plan will be based not only on the individual teacher evaluation system, but also on team success in improving school, grade level or subject area achievement, according to a House staff release.

“This legislation will allow us to seize on national momentum for education reforms Republicans have supported and pushed for years in an effort to improve student achievement,” said Rep. Earl Sears, R-Bartlesville, the author of numerous performance pay bills this session. “This new reform will also reward our teachers who are committed to education and student success.”

Before a district can implement an incentive pay plan, it must develop the plan using a collaborative process involving stakeholders, including teachers and school leaders; place the plan on agenda for public comment at a meeting of the district board; submit the plan to State Board of Education for review; and the State Board must approve or reject plans within 60 days.

Another reform included in the legislation requires that teachers meet new standards before attaining ‘career teacher’ status. Additionally, principals will be held accountable for ensuring success in their schools. Schools listed as persistently low-achieving for at least four consecutive years will be required to take corrective action to improve achievement.

“This legislation lays out some minimum requirements for an evaluation system, but ultimately leaves the performance pay plan details to each local school district to craft to best meet the needs of their community and learning environment,” said Rep. Ann Coody, a Lawton Republican and chairwoman of the Education Committee. “Our students deserve the best teachers and administrators and as legislators, we must do all we can to improve academics in our state.”

The bill passed the House 75-25 and now goes to the governor for final review.

NOTE: Editor Patrick B. McGuigan contributed to this report.