Reading Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin’s ‘tough love’ — Veto boosts reformers, sparks bi-partisan criticism

OKLAHOMA CITY – Gov. Mary Fallin has vetoed a bi-partisan bill the Superintendent of Public Instruction assailed as a phony “social promotion” of public school students with reading problems.

Fallin said she refused to sign House Bill 2625 because of testing data showing that 16 percent of state third graders, 7,970 out of 48,691 tested, did not have satisfactory reading scores this past school year.

In the state’s largest districts, Oklahoma City and Tulsa, nearly one-third of students failed the test.

Her veto of the bill to ease the third grade reading requirement has provoked bi-partisan criticism while affirming allies determined to improve education performance in the Sooner State.

With adjournment looming and despite overwhelming backing for the law in both chambers, legislators could forego an override attempt, but Wednesday afternoon there appeared to be some momentum to enact it over her veto.

“We thank Gov. Mary Fallin for intervening on behalf of children who have not been taught to read,” said Brandon Dutcher, senior vice president at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA), a free market think tank based in Oklahoma City.

“Though House Bill 2625 is well-intentioned and many of its supporters are clearly motivated by compassion, Gov. Fallin’s tough-love veto shows that she understands it is anything but compassionate to promote a child to the fourth grade who is reading at a first-grade level or lower.”

Fallin told state Capitol reporters the measure would have gutted current law in the form of the Reading Sufficiency Act and its requirement for third-graders to read proficiently before advancing.

Fallin’s line-in-the-sand in the debate is bolstered by her reading of testing data.

H.B. 2625 would create teams consisting of parents, two teachers, a principal and a reading specialist to determine if a third-grade student who has failed reading assessments should move to the next grade.

“The decision about what is in the best interest for young children should be made by those who know them best, not by a state legislator or a standardized test,” said David Blatt, executive director of the Oklahoma Policy Institute, OCPA’s counterpart on the progressive end of the spectrum.

The statewide Parents Legislative Action Committee and a majority of legislators backed H.B. 2625.

However, Fallin noted, students already have options to prepare a portfolio or take alternative assessments. The state has been aiming for “at-grade” reading proficiency for more than a decade, and the chief executive argued the time for delay is over.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi assailed H.B. 2625 when it cleared the Legislature two weeks ago, saying previous practices of “social promotion” have “failed to reduce illiteracy and deprived students from receiving the best education possible. Nothing is more fundamental to learning than the ability to read.”

Also backing the Fallin veto was the Legislature’s leading conservative education reformer, state Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City, who said during final House debate, “We shouldn’t promote kids who are not capable of doing the work.”

Oklahoma City Democratic Rep. Mike Shelton countered, “This bill would give us an opportunity to step back and use the next couple of years to figure out a long-term solution.”

Also disappointed in Fallin’s veto were fellow Republicans Sen. Gary Stanislawski and Rep. Katie Henke, both from Tulsa, the bill’s co-sponsors.

Fallins line-in-the-sand in the debate is bolstered by her reading of testing data.

Dutcher was firm in support of Fallin, telling Oklahoma Watchdog: “Fourth-graders who are functionally illiterate, who cannot read and comprehend ‘Green Eggs and Ham,’ are well on their way to joining the ranks of Oklahoma’s adult illiterates. These are children whose lives will be damaged, many of them unalterably. Social promotion does them no favors whatsoever.

Dutcher continued, “One thing is clear: the status quo is not working. As is the case year after year, Oklahoma currently has thousands of fourth graders who are unable to read at grade level — despite the fact that the education system has already spent more than $25,000 on each of their educations.”

“How is this even possible? It’s time for some market solutions to this government failure. 

Policymakers should enact vouchers or Education Savings Accounts, empowering parents to choose educators who will teach their children to read,” Dutcher concluded.

You may contact Pat at