Legislature sends Fallin education reforms, including end to “trial de novo” for dismissed teachers
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Published: 02-Apr-2011

The state Legislature has sent – or soon will send – final versions of two significant measures the Republican majority deems reforms, but which the Democratic minority considers attacks on teachers. Still coming in the weeks ahead are proposals to fix technical issues in the special needs program passed last year, and a new opportunity scholarship program. 

Even as progress on a range of conservative policy proposals is made, Democrats remain critical, and pointed out the majority missed the April 1 deadline for public school funding decisions. 

House Bill 2130 would ensure the State Superintendent of Public Instruction has clearly defined statutory authority to run the agency as she (or he) sees fit, with new limitations on the powers of the Board of Education. A second measure, House Bill 1380, would bring an end to the “trial de novo” process Republicans believe has impaired the ability of public school districts to fire poorly performing educators.

Having previously passed the House, this past week's debates in the state Senate were critical steps in the journey to enactment for both measures

Thursday, in a sometimes contentious debate on the “de novo” measure, Sen. Earl Garrison of Muskogee challenged some language in H.B. 1380, saying he believed it could undermine the concept of “career teacher” and do away entirely with pre-termination hearings. Garrison also asserted teacher tenure provisions were threatened by the bill. 

Senator John Ford of Bartlesville, Republican chairman of the body's Education Committee, said the legislation would provide for a “fuller hearing in front of the local school board,” but end the option for direct appeals to district courts. Ford said, “I do not see this bill eliminating tenure.”

In an exchange with another Democrat, Senator Richard Lerblance of Hartshorne, Ford defended the bill's pre-termination process, contending it already exists under state Education Board rules, and could be revised by the board in the future.

Senator Jim Wilson of Tahlequah said he was concerned that a local board or board member could carry out a vendetta to get a teacher or teachers fired. Ford said he was not aware of an instance of that occurring, but that accountability of board members to voters would help prevent such situations. 

In final discussion of the measure, Democrats noted trial de novo had been in place since the late 1960s. Wilson asserted that the bill “could do irreparable damage to our classrooms.” Members of the minority asserted the bill's passage would be a step backwards. 

Some of the debate included glimpses of local school system operations, offered by both sides in the argument. Sen. Tom Ivester of Elk City said he had been told by one administrator the new power for district officials would be used to fire teachers for budgetary reasons, under the guise of terminating bad teachers. 

In later debate, Senator Josh Brecheen of Coalgate pointed to an instance where, he said, a school in his district had accepted the resignation of a teacher who later changed her mind. The administration had already made its plans, and had to fight the issue in court. Ultimately, Brecheen said, the school system had to spend $40,000 to dismiss the teacher.

In his closing remarks against the bill, Sen. Wilson used strong opposition language, saying, “These superintendents don't own that school, and these local boards don't own that school. All we ask is that teachers have recourse. … We're going to deprive our children of good teachers.” 

Sen. Lerblance said the proposal amounted to “slappin' teachers, right in the face.” He challenged contentions of “runaway costs” due to trials de novo. He asked, “what else are we gonna take away from the teachers?” Lerblance said teachers should not be used as “whippin' boys and girls.” 

Defending the bill, Sen. Gary Stanislawski of Tulsa said it was time to switch the focus of public education onto children. Believing that 90 to 95 percent of teachers “still have passion,” he argued “there's a few who don't care anymore.” Stanislawski called the bill “a critical piece of legislation that gives power back to that local school board.” He contended teachers and educators should have the same, not more or less, rights as those serving in any other profession.

In the longest floor speech of the debate, Connie Johnson of east Oklahoma City said the local public school district included those who were “the least, the last, and the left out.” She believes some advocates of changes in education are “using schools as pawns in a larger picture.” Johnson maintained that socioeconomic conditions, not poor teachers, were “shaping the educational outcomes of the children” in area schools.

Making the case for the particular reform of “trial de novo,” in closing remarks Sen. Ford said the bill was part of a broader effort to improve the quality of public education. He noted that elimination of trial de novo would not effect the recourse of any individual to fight dismissal on grounds of wrongful termination or discrimination; and would not end protections in labor law. 

Ford said the local school board would be responsive to patrons through local elections. In the long run, he said, the proposal would help quality teachers, and eliminate from classrooms those who are not performing. Ford maintained passing the bill was “but one of the changes we've got to make to improve education.” 

The bill passed comfortably, 30-17, with each affirmative vote from the ranks of Republicans. One Republican, Harry Coates of Seminole, joined 16 Democrats against the bill. The final roll call included some drama. Republican Sen. Mark Allen of Spiro seemed to vacillate, voting no (red on the roll call board above the presiding officer's head), then switching to yes (green on the board).

Sen. Ralph Shortey of Oklahoma City, who had participated in previous roll calls, left the floor before the final vote. The final tally was held open for more than 10 minutes as members of his party sought to find him. Unable to do so, the roll call was closed. 

Despite the strong majority, failure of the emergency meant Republican leaders were just short of securing the 32 votes needed. The emergency clause assures laws take effect upon receiving the governor's signature. Without it, enforcement is prevented for 90 days. 

Sen. Shortey is sometimes an ally of state Rep. Randy Terrill, who has denounced Speaker Kris Steele, and voted to oppose on the merits – or to impede inclusion of emergency clauses – some elements of the Republican agenda in the Legislature.

Earlier on Thursday, the Senate passed H.B. 2139, enhancing the powers of the superintendent of public instruction. 

In debate, Sen. Andrew Rice of Oklahoma City, the Democratic leader in the Senate, noted this was the third or fourth variation of proposals to give more powers to the superintendent, while limiting in some ways powers of the state Board. Rice asserted the bill flowed from events during the controversial first meeting of Superintendent Barresi with members of the Board  that governs her agency. 

In that meeting, members of the board repeatedly assailed the superintendent and her staff, denying her the senior staff she requested. One member commented negatively on the pregnancy of a Barresi staff member. 

Senator Rice asserted that several participants in that meeting had “acted contentiously” and unprofessionally, but that the bad behavior of Barresi's critics was not justification for dramatic changes in education governance. Other Democrats have said Barresi has violated the law by having two members of her staff paid by a private group while the controversy continued. 

Rice noted that the version of H.B. 2139 in final debate was not as dramatic as some earlier proposals, which seemed in his mind to be a recognition by the majority that they had overreached. Sen. Rice said, he did not see a compelling reason to make the proposed changes, so he voted no. That bill passed 31-16.

On Friday, Sen. Ford, who shepherded both bills to victory, said the legislation “shows the leadership in both chambers is serious about enacting reforms that will allow Oklahoma to address the most pressing concerns facing us in education, from ensuring success from the early grades in core skills, to improving our graduation rates. That is our motivation for getting these measures approved in the 2011 session.”

Ford noted the measures passed 24 hours after former Florida Governor Jeb Bush visited Oklahoma City, including the Capitol, to press for a wide range of education reforms. Ford reflected, “As Governor Bush has pointed out many times, our students are not only competing with one another and with students from other states, but they’re also competing with students from other countries. In the 21st Century, Oklahoma’s young people are increasingly going to be forced to compete globally for the best paying jobs. Let’s give Oklahoma’s youth every opportunity to succeed.”

In earlier communications with CapitolBeatOK, state Rep. Corey Holland of Marlow, the Republican legislator who has pressed for an end to “trial de novo” provisions, reported

that the current process to fire bad teachers can take more than one year and cost districts between $80,000 and $100,000 per case. News reports on a case in Purcell disclose it took around $80,000 to fire from the local system a teacher later charged with lewd acts with a child.

Speaker of the House Kris Steele, in his regular column distributed to state newspapers, said the most notable bill of the pair passed last week would “empower local districts with the ability to obtain and retain competent teachers.” He asserted that H.B. 1380 ends “the practice of automatically affording terminated teachers a costly trial in district court. Proficient teachers must be protected; however, flexibility should exist to allow schools to release ineffective instructors without a cumbersome court trial.”

Steele contended the bill “provides an important tool which will allow limited resources to be spent in the classroom, not the courtroom. 

In his regular session with state Capitol reporters, Speaker Steele responded to criticisms leveled by House Democrats which intensified as the April 1 deadline to “fund education first” came and went. Steele told reporters, “I believe it’s very important that we announce our education appropriations properly. Our goal is to announce it as soon as possible, to give the school districts that information.”

CapitolBeatOK asked if it might be possible for the Legislature to pass a funding bill at 85-90% of anticipated spending, to allow schools and agencies to begin planning for the coming fiscal year. Steele responded, “At this point, the thought may be that we’re getting close enough,” and that a final accord is nearing. 

House Minority Leader Scott Inman, a Del City Democrat, said Friday that his caucus was united in opposing efforts to change the powers of the state Board of Education, enhance the authority of the state superintendent of public instruction, and end “trial de novo.” He said, “We’re opposed to the direction the majority wants to take our public schools with more reliance on charter schools and support for voucher programs.”

Rep. Inman summarized some GOP measures as “eliminating the rights of teachers.” His most pointed criticisms were aimed at “the failure to keep the promise made to ‘Fund Education First." Inman observed, “They have violated that state law every single year. This year, once again, we’ll have no budget,” by April 1.

Inman stressed the history of House Bill 1247, a measure passed in 2003. The Legislature met the “Fund Education First” deadline the next year, finishing the process by March 22, 2004. Inman asserted, “When ‘Fund Education First’ was created, the Republicans wanted it and passed it. … Since 2005, the Republicans have never made it. In the past they blamed the Democrats for being late with budgets, but they can’t blame us for this.

“I don’t understand why the governor, the speaker and the president pro tem couldn’t get together and pass a budget for education.”

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