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What to expect from Oklahoma lawmakers on education in 2024

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt announces historic education funding at a May 2023 press conference surrounded by House and Senate leaders. The administration unveiled the funding package worth $625 million in recurring funds and $160 million in one-time funds.
Beth Wallis
StateImpact Oklahoma
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt announces historic education funding at a May 2023 press conference surrounded by House and Senate leaders. The administration unveiled the funding package worth $625 million in recurring funds and $160 million in one-time funds.

The state legislature is back in session, and there’s no hotter topic than education policy. StateImpact education reporter Beth Wallis talked with StateImpact managing editor Logan Layden about what to expect from lawmakers in 2024.

Logan Layden, StateImpact Managing Editor: Beth, let’s start with addressing the state’s teacher shortage. We just did an investigative piece on the new bonus program to incentivize teachers to come to Oklahoma, but what’s in the works to do right by teachers this session?

Beth Wallis, StateImpact Education Reporter: So, a couple of different avenues for that. For teacher preparation programs at universities, there’s a bill by Senator Ally Seifried — Senate Bill 1342 — that would create the Oklahoma Teacher Recruitment Academy. The Education Department would identify the top five critical shortage areas, and if teachers commit to teaching those shortage areas, they would get tuition and fee assistance. Also, she’s introducing Senate Bill 1213. And that would allow student-teachers to get a stipend. And so in the last semester of a teaching degree teachers have an internship in an actual school. As of right now they don’t get paid for that. This would give them a $3,000 stipend. As for teachers who are currently in the classroom, Senator Adam Pugh has a few different initiatives. Senate Bill 1313 — that’s a teacher pay raise — it would raise the salary by $1500 to $3000, depending on how long you’ve been in the classroom. Senate Bill 1315. This adds on to last year’s maternity leave policy for teachers. Last year the requirement was you had to be in a school district for a year to be able to qualify for it. This would take that off. It also adds adoption to leave and it opens it up as well to fathers — only for adoption, not for parental leave. But fathers would be able to take that adoption leave as well. Senate Bill 1256, that the Teacher Empowerment Program that was launched by OSDE last year. And we saw that it didn’t get a whole lot of traction. And what that program was is it allowed superintendents to identify up to 10% of the top-performing teachers in their school district, and they would qualify for certain raises. The program, though, made it to where the school district had to pony-up half of the amount of those raises. It wasn’t very popular. So this would take that match-fund requirement off.

Layden: School shootings. It’s a uniquely American problem. So as it relates to guns in schools, there’s some legislation to increase the punishment for possession of a firearm, but also to loosen restrictions on guns in schools. Can you explain that?

Wallis: Sure. So there are a couple of bills. They’re both by Republican senators. Senate Bill 1254 by Jessica Garvin. This would make it to where if someone brings an unauthorized handgun to school — it used to be a misdemeanor, now it would be a felony punishable by imprisonment and a fine. And then you also have another bill by Denise Crosswhite Hader. And this would make it to where any person who is allowed to own a gun can carry that gun on school property.

Layden: As far as higher education goes, there’s a real push, it seems, to limit diversity, equity and inclusion training, curriculum, and of course Critical Race Theory.

Wallis: Following Governor Stitt’s executive order that limited the scope of DEI at universities, Senator Rob Standridge — Republican Senator — he has Senate Bill 1303. He also has a couple of other bills that would do similar things. But, essentially, they get rid of DEI. It would take away funding to establish or maintain DEI offices, to hire employees to DEI departments. And those couple of other bills I mentioned, it would also prohibit students from having to take courses or employees having to take DEI trainings.

Layden: And finally, the structure of the State Board of Education itself could change, if a bill from Adam Pugh gets enough support.

Wallis: This one is really interesting. So Senate Bill 1395. Currently the state Board of Education sits at seven members. It’s an often unanimous membership. And this would take it up to eleven members. And as of right now the governor has sole appointing authority for the state Board of Education. This would make it to where that appointing authority is divided between the governor, the Senate pro-temp, and the speaker of the House. Also an interesting part of this bill. It would allow members to be removed due to -quote- malfeasance, misfeasance, or nonfeasance of Board duties, or if they miss three successive meetings without just cause.

Layden: I would have to think that the governor wouldn’t be behind that, so it would need enough support to probably overcome a potential veto.

Wallis: I would definitely say that as well.

Beth Wallis holds a journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma. Originally from Tulsa, she also graduated from Oklahoma State University with a bachelor's degree in music education and a master's degree in conducting performance. She was a band director at a public school for five years.
Logan Layden is a reporter and managing editor for StateImpact Oklahoma.