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Legislature passes, governor signs two controversial education bills

Legislature passes, governor signs two controversial education bills

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Two hotly disputed education reform measures that described as both transformative and not that big of a deal shot through the Oklahoma House and Senate and were signed into law within hours by Gov. Kevin Stitt on Wednesday.

Stitt left no doubt about his opinion on the matter.

“This is a monumental day for education reform in Oklahoma,” said Stitt. “Education is not one-size-fits-all, and these bills allow parents and students to have the freedom to attend the best public school for them regardless of their ZIP code.

"Additionally, modernizing the funding formula ensures funding follows the student, not the school. These reforms are vital to getting Oklahoma to be a Top Ten state in education and I am proud of this Republican legislature for its dedication to putting students first.”

House Bill 2078, by Rep. Kyle Hilbert, R-Bristow, changes the formula for distributing state aid to Oklahoma's public schools, while Senate Bill 783, by Sen. Adam Pugh, R-Edmond, removes most barriers to student transfers among districts at any time during the school year, providing those students meet discipline and attendance standards and the receiving school has room.

HB 2078 passed the Senate 27-19, and SB 783 got through the House 65-30 a few hours later.

Both bills were opposed by the state's major education associations and many local districts. Under questioning from colleagues, neither of the members presenting Wednesday's bills could name a superintendent or education official who supported the legislation.

"Today marks one step forward and two steps back for public education," said state Superintendent Joy Hofmeister. "While Senate Bill 783 holds real promise for many families and students, House Bill 2078 unfortunately compromises any gains that would come with open transfers.

"Children in rural Oklahoma deserve to have a high quality education and HB 2078 potentially jeopardizes that. 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."

Wednesday's votes cut off mounting pressure on rural Republican lawmakers, who were being told their schools would be negatively affected by the measures.

As it was, 11 Republicans in the Senate and 16 in the House, most of them representing rural constituencies, voted against the measures.

The more directly impactful of the two is probably HB 2078, although it is not effective until the 2022-23 school year.

More than most states, Oklahoma depends on its state aid formula to even out funding across districts and to compensate for relatively low property taxes — historically the source of school funding in most states.

HB 2078 does not change the overall amount of state aid but does alter — some say significantly — how much individual districts receive. It also allows districts to hold more money in reserve in order to contend with potential funding swings.

Generally, districts losing students will see their state aid shrink more quickly, while growing districts will receive increased allocations sooner.

Under current law, districts use the larger of their past two years' enrollments to calculate state aid and the larger of the past two years or the first nine weeks of the current year to determine mid-year adjustments.
 
The two-year "look back" is supposed to smooth out fluctuations in attendance for budgeting purposes and allow districts suffering large enrollment drops to adjust.
 
HB 2078 shortens that "look-back" to one year, or the first nine weeks for the mid-year adjustment. Thus funding, the argument goes, will more accurately reflect current enrollment.
 
Simply put, the new formula divides the same amount of money fewer ways by eliminating some of the duplicated students.

In a normal year, the State Department of Education says, that's about 15,000 students. During the pandemic, however, more than 55,000 switched schools, many to virtual schools such as Epic.

Rightly or wrongly, the specter of Epic, a virtual charter school giant accused of wrongly spending more than $11 million in state money, hovered over all of Wednesday's proceedings.

Critics of Wednesday's two bills contend that the real intent is to deflect attention away from Epic and its troubles and to allow Stitt and legislative leaders to claim education reform victories without putting any money into the system.

Hilbert has said he believes that his bill will actually take money away from Epic, and Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat said the timing of the school formula change will benefit most districts because the baseline will be the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic.

On the House side, supporters of SB 783 described it as a victory for school choice, while opponents said it is, at best, window dressing and at worst a Trojan horse.

They predicted that Wednesday's two bills, together with other recent actions that could potentially send millions of tax dollars to privately operated schools, will create a free-for-all that leaves most public schools poorer than ever.

"When someone says the money follows the student, I say follow the money," said Rep. John Waldron, D-Tulsa.

Treat and House Majority Floor Leader Jon Echols denied such grand plans.

"This is a very minor reform in the whole scheme of reforms we would wish to do," Treat said in debating for the funding formula bill.

Echols, who represents southwest Oklahoma City, said SB 783 prevents students from being stuck in subpar schools because of the ZIP code in which they live.

But Rep. Forrest Bennett, who represents mostly low-income neighborhoods just south of downtown Oklahoma City, said it does just the opposite.

"This is for the kids whose parents can pick them up and (drive) them to another ZIP code," Bennett said. "There are parents in my district who want better education but don't have the bandwidth to do this.

"Some talked about moving heaven and earth for their kids. For a lot of these families, moving heaven and earth looks like what a lot of us take for granted. … For those families, this is not a solution."

Andrea Eger and Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton contributed to this story.


Featured video: Governor says he supports Oklahoma State Board of Education decision to equalize funding to settle charter lawsuit

Gov. Kevin Stitt spoke March 29 about the State Board of Education's March 25 vote.


Tulsa-area state legislators and how to contact them

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