Oklahoma House Speaker Jeffrey Hickman and education reform champ Jason Nelson question Hofmeister’s ACT decision

OKLAHOMA CITY – Speaker of the House Jeffrey W. Hickman, R-Fairview and state Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City, responded with concerns over Wednesday’s announcement concerning the state Education Department’s plans to spend perhaps $1.5 million to finance ACT testing for all high school juniors in the Sooner State.

Speaker Hickman commented, in a statement sent to CapitolBeatOK and other news organizations:

“Only in the past week did legislators learn of the state superintendent’s plan to spend $1.5 million on a new program to pay for all 11th grade students to take the ACT test. I and many members of the House of Representatives have expressed numerous times that the first priority must be the completion of new academic standards for our schools and submission of those new standards to the Legislature as soon as possible. Adoption of our new academic standards should be the starting point to the discussion and future decisions on state testing, not the other way around.

“Last session, the House developed House Bill 2088 which would have reduced state-mandated tests and protected the standards development process by ensuring adoption of certain standards before making any further testing decisions. 

This position has not changed. This new state program announced today takes another instruction day for testing and adds another test, which is contrary to the direction we hoped to take with House Bill 2088.

“With the continued pressure on state revenues from the decline in oil prices and the layoffs of thousands of Oklahomans, every education dollar should be spent to support the classroom, ensuring Oklahoma students are college and career ready. 

While the goals of this new state program are noble, we have numerous challenges facing us within our existing education programs on which we must stay focused.”

Hickman and other conservatives in the Legislature were surprised at Superintendent Joy Hofmeister’s announcement she will spend from her agency budget to finance ACT tests for roughly 22,000 juniors in the state’s high schools

Despite a flat year for state finances, Hofmeister and other public school officials wanted more money than legislators were willing to spend this past session.

Rep. Nelson, a champion of education reform in the majority caucus at the Capitol, reflected in a separate statement,  “I’ve always believed that financial savings could be found within existing education programs. That Superintendent Hofmeister has identified a surplus of $1.5 million proves this.

“But how she proposes to spend this extra money signals a shift in her priorities and a lack of appreciation for the looming revenue challenges the state is likely going to face next year.

“There are important existing programs like the Reading Sufficiency Act where this money could be better spent. School districts have been requesting more money to help cover the cost of reading programs to help ensure third graders can read well enough to be successful when entering the fourth grade.

“To my knowledge, the State Department of Education never requested funds for a voluntary pilot program to pay for college entrance tests for high school students — many of whom may not even be planning to attend college. School districts may have more pressing needs where these limited resources could be better used to enhance student learning.

“The most recent numbers I’m aware of show that seventy-five percent of Oklahoma high school students already take the ACT college entrance exam. 

Starting a new pilot program to do something that is largely already happening is not the highest priority facing education in Oklahoma.

“That the Department was able to identify a surplus of $1.5 million with which to begin a new pilot program is surprising considering the state superintendent expressed ‘severe disappointment’ over the level of appropriations to education last session. 

“I certainly think, as a general rule, that education funds are best allocated through the state per pupil funding formula to follow students to their local school districts and student choice programs. If there are savings to be found in the state’s testing program it would seem to make sense to push that money to the students through the formula.”

Nelson, an influential legislator on education spending priorities and other policy matters, continued,

“In February, Superintendent Hofmeister seemed to agree when she talked about strategies to achieve ‘an increase in classroom instruction and a reduction of time spent testing.’ She said, the ‘savings of time and resources could be redirected for support of higher student achievement.’ 

“Everyone agrees that learning happens when students and teachers are engaged in the classroom.”

“There was a discussion during the last legislative session about replacing the current high school end of instruction exams, or EOIs, with the Iowa Basic or ACT exams but the decision was made to wait until the new standards for English language arts and math are adopted early next year. The new standards should be adopted before the State Department of Education establishes a new program on student testing.”

NOTE: Editor Pat McGuigan contributed to this story.