Legislators clash over school deregulation bills

By Patrick B. McGuigan

In dueling press releases and floor speeches, Republicans and Democrats continued to clash last week over the merits of Senate Bill 834 and other proposals for deregulation of public schools and/or school reform efforts. A leading Democrat said one recent measure pushed by his Republican colleagues contradicted the stated goals behind S.B. 834. The bill has been the focus of many recent news stories, including in this newspaper.

Supporters say the School District Empowerment programs incorporated into S.B. 834 will allow local schools districts greater freedom on deciding which state education mandates to implement or enforce.

In a statement sent to The City Sentinel, state Rep. Tad Jones, a Claremore Republican known as a leader for Republican education ideas, said, “For years, school administrators and teachers have fought the mandates coming from the state Capitol and have argued that they know what is best for their students, not politicians. With this bill, we are saying we agree with them. Despite the ongoing claims, this bill is not anti-public education. In fact, this legislation will help strengthen public education by moving the decision-making closer to home and trusting that parents, teachers, administrators and school boards know what educational methods are most appropriate for their local students.”

Many existing standards are kept in place in the bill, including minimum salary schedules, retirement system participation, state Health Insurance, background checks,  evaluations and certifications, payroll deductions, administrator certification, board training, and graduation requirements.

If passed, the legislation will be implemented over seven years, with the first schools those on the needs improvement list. One-fifth of remaining schools will be chosen each year until all state schools are included. Jones argues the phased-in schedule will allow lawmakers to gauge results and make adjustments as needed.

Advocates of SB 834 point to Western Village Academy, a public charter school, as an example of the benefits of deregulation. In the fall of 2000, Western Village opened as one of the state’s first elementary charters. It serves an attendance area much like a “regular” public school rather than gathering students from a pool of applicants like some  charter schools.

Test scores of Western Village students have steadily improved. Officials allow no more than 20 students per class. Teachers are paid an average of $1,000 more than the minimum. The school year has lengthened by five days at the site, with 30 additional minutes of daily instructional time.

Principal Peggy Brinson, in a statement sent to The City Sentinel, said, “There are many different ways to teach children; you can’t put everyone into the same box. You can’t just go black or white with anything; we have sought to find that gray area. We have made great strides with our students because we’ve had the freedom to do so. There are many ways to educate children and as long as everyone is held to some level of accountability, nit-picking the details is not productive.”

Jones said urged Gov. Brad Henry to sign the bill, which seems headed toward final passage this week or next.

Dissenting from the Republican majority on this issue was Democratic Leader Danny Morgan of Prague. In a statement sent to The City Sentinel, he said, “If my Republican colleagues are trying to send a clear message to educators, they are failing.” He pointed to what he said seem to be contradictions among education bills advanced by the GOP.

“One day they want to take away state regulations on schools; the next, they want expanded state control over school performance. You can’t have it both ways,” Morgan said, as he pointed to S.B. 268, to require school boards to alter the governing arrangements of schools identified as needing improvement. The statement from Morgan’s office noted, “Republican lawmakers also pushed passage of SB834 to empower school boards to make their own decisions regarding state mandates.”

Morgan continued, “Under SB 834, they’re letting the school boards make all the decisions for how the schools are run. Under (S.B. 268), they’re telling school boards that if you don’t do what they want, the state will step in.

“If that’s all they wanted to do, they could have done it by not passing either bill and using the current system – which is passing mandates.  They would have saved us all a lot of time and effort that way,” Morgan concluded.