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Legislator: Public schools open to 'endless litigation' under proposed law allowing state to pursue discrimination complaints

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Rep. John Waldron (left) speaks at the House state powers committee, Wednesday, April 6, 2022

A multipurpose bill allowing the attorney general to investigate public schools for discrimination passed a hurdle in the state legislature Wednesday morning.

SB 784 was originally introduced this session as a bill relating to law enforcement education in schools. In a meeting of the House state powers committee, Rep. John Waldron (D-Tulsa) questioned the bill’s complete transformation.

“When I was looking at the bill yesterday at noon it had to do with CLEET training. By two o’clock I discovered it was something significantly different,” said Waldron. “We had senators review the bill, study the legislation, tour CLEET facilities, learn about the CLEET process. Is that a good use of the people’s time?”

Author Rep. Danny Williams (R-Seminole) said the original language in the bill was “not needed anymore."

Williams said he worked with Rep. Sherrie Conley (R-Newcastle) on the overhaul of SB 784. Conley has been active in legislation aimed at banning books in school libraries.

HB 1775, a law forbidding the teaching of critical race theory signed by Gov. Kevin Stitt last year, took a prominent place in the discussion. Waldron said only two complaints related to CRT have been received and investigated by the federal Department of Education. He wondered if a new process was really needed.

“Do we have evidence there are complaints not being heard by the federal government and need to be heard by the state, or is this a solution in search of a problem?” Waldron asked.

Williams said he's unconcerned about the number of complaints.

“The thing about it is, I don’t care how many or how few challenges we have in Oklahoma. We will be better served by serving it ourselves,” said Williams.

Rep. Denise Crosswhite Hader (R-Piedmont) pointed out over 500 public comments were received on HB 1775 administrative rules.

“We had 500 comments, but no credible records,” replied Waldron.

Initially Williams said his bill was a “a lot about nothing” and he didn’t expect much of an impact. Then he said there was actually a problem with the process used to complain and people should have an opportunity to appeal to the attorney general.

Waldron said the the bill should be amended to include discrimination in private schools. He gave an example of a student expelled from a private school for declaring a crush on a same-sex student, noting the school accepted public dollars.

Waldron also worried about the damage complainants would do to public education.

“They don’t even have to prove their claims to damage our public schools because we can open them up to endless litigation,” said Waldron.

Williams said he trusted Oklahomans and the attorney general, mentioning past office holders.

“I trust the attorney general’s opinion,” said Williams. “I totally agree with him in all circumstances.”

SB 784 would also create an education commission with members from multiple government organizations. Williams said the purpose would be to evaluate distance learning in Oklahoma with an apparent fiscal goal, pointing to a company in Ohio that markets its education services to the Oklahoma Department of Corrections.

“If we’re gonna pay somebody, let’s pay ourselves,” said Williams.

Before joining Public Radio Tulsa, Elizabeth Caldwell was a freelance reporter and a teacher. She holds a master's from Hollins University. Her audio work has appeared at KCRW, CBC's The World This Weekend, and The Missouri Review. She is a south Florida native.