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Local & Regional

Stitt Signs Bills To Implement Major Education Policy Reforms He Requested

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Governor's office
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Gov. Kevin Stitt wasted no time in signing bills to implement major education policy reforms he asked for in February during his state of the state address.

Lawmakers passed House Bill 2078 and Senate Bill 783 on Wednesday. Stitt signed the bills hours later.

The Senate passed HB2078 on a 27–19 vote. It changes the statewide funding formula so it’s based on a district’s attendance the prior year, not the higher of the past two years as is in law currently.

Opponents said the change could trigger devastating cuts if a district sees a sudden drop in enrollment, like some did during the pandemic. Sen. Jo Anna Dossett (D-Tulsa) told HB2078's sponsor, Sen. Zack Taylor (R-Seminole), she’s heard from many constituents who are already anticipating less state funding because of the measure.

"Help me understand what I am supposed to tell my superintendents, my school boards my school staff, my teachers, parents and students when I go back home and say, 'We just passed a bill that is effectively going to reduce the money that y’all have to operate'?" Dossett said.

"I don’t know your district well enough to know what the effect on each of your districts is going to be that you represent, but I will say judging by your line of questioning, you will be able to go back to them and say that 'I voted no,'" Taylor said.

Several Republicans representing rural areas voted against the bill, including Tahlequah Sen. Blake Stephens. He said the state is still experiencing a teacher shortage, and that could leave districts in a bind if budgets vary too much year to year.

"You let those teachers go, you don’t simply have the luxury of picking up a telephone and calling and saying, 'I need another math teacher,' or 'I need another English teacher. I need a music teacher,'" Stephens said.

Sen. Shane Jett (R-Shawnee) said he understands districts’ funding concerns but thinks they can handle it.

"Superintendents make six-figure salaries because we’re looking at recruiting the best and the brightest to manage our schools and make sure that good budgetary decisions are being made on behalf of the students of the taxpayers who we represent," Jett said.

Many, but not all superintendents in the state make $100,000 or more, according to data from the Oklahoma State Department of Education.

SB783 passed the House 68–19. It allows students up to two transfers per year outside their home districts. Again, several Republican lawmakers from rural areas voted against the bill.

Rep. John Waldron (D-Tulsa), a former public school teacher, said together, the new policies will create a free-for-all where schools try to court students in order to have the highest possible enrollment.

"This is not like running a pizza chain or a muffler shop under free market principles. Public schools have to be prepared to meet the needs of every child. They exist to provide a public good, not to generate profits," Waldron said.

Waldron also shared a letter from Roff Public Schools Superintendent Scott Morgan, who was concerned that an open transfer policy will lead to student-athletes jumping schools to be on the best team.

Rep. Brad Boles (R-Marlow) said the bill’s aim is simple.

"It gives power to the parents, our Oklahoma taxpayers, to better ensure that their children are going to a public school that best meets the needs of their kids," Boles said.

Transfer requests can be denied because of a student’s disciplinary history or attendance record. SB783 requires a student's siblings also meet attendance and disciplinary requirements. A House bill dealing with open transfer policy made siblings' acceptance automatic.

Rep. Forrest Bennett (D-Oklahoma City) said the bills will let students leave schools they see as struggling, costing those schools funding and hurting students whose families can’t get them to another school.

"There are incredible things happening in these schools, but this kind of thing that says this is going to encourage the kind of competition that’s going to make these schools strive to be better — they’re doing the best they can. They are. The shortcomings come from this building," Bennett said.

Several Democratic lawmakers have said school funding is the real problem the state needs to solve. House Majority Leader Jon Echols said families deserve more choice in schools, and the two measures shouldn’t be considered in tandem.

"The House budget has enough money in their funding for education to redo the 1017 classroom levels. We’d like to make it the largest education budget in the state of Oklahoma. That will do something for funding," Echols said.

House Bill 1017, passed in 1990, set maximum class sizes. Those limits have not been observed for many years, however, because of budget shortfalls.

In a statement, State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister said SB783 "holds real promise," but HB2078 could jeopardize rural students' access to quality education.

"This bill removes financial safeguards meant to protect all students from the impact of abrupt changes in the local economy. Kids will lose when schools are forced to make sudden cuts in essential services and opportunities which provide access to a well-rounded education," Hofmeister said.

Hofmeister was not present at Stitt's signing ceremony Wednesday afternoon.

The open transfer policy is effective Jan. 1, 2022. The funding formula change takes effect July 1, 2022.

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