A GOP-sponsored bill deregulating schools is a dangerous measure that could lower academic standards and increase class sizes in the state's schools.
Its stated intent is to empower school districts, but Senate Bill 834, sponsored by Sen. John Ford, R-Bartlesville, could ultimately reduce the quality of education received by the state's children.
Under the measure, all Oklahoma schools could gradually operate essentially as charter schools, which are exempt from many state educational mandates, meaning class size requirements and academic standards could be determined by local school boards. This could lead to larger class sizes and non-certified teachers in districts, according to the Oklahoma Education Association (OEA), which opposes the bill.
The OEA also points out the bill would only guarantee teacher salaries at the minimum rate, and school districts could eliminate negotiations with employees. The bottom line appears to be this: Many Oklahoma teachers would work harder for less money if the bill becomes law.
Along with larger class sizes, the OEA argues the bill will not require schools to have library/media specialists, guidance counselors, teacher preparation, minimum education standards, alternative education and public input into policies.
State teacher salaries are already some of the lowest in the nation. The per-student funding is chronically low as well. Oklahoma lags behind the national average in the number of college graduates it produces.
Some state school districts didn't even provide health insurance for its teachers a few years back. Teachers here often spend their own money to provide supplies for their students. They work long hours during the school year for low pay, sometimes under difficult circumstances because of personal dedication and compassion. Overall, they do an incredible job given the lack of adequate educational funding.
In a widely circulated remark, OEA Vice President Becky Felts said, "What it (SB 834) does is gut the entire process of what public education is about. Schools could lose their counselors. Teachers could lose their preparation time. It's a free-for-all in doing away with what public education is all about."
This anything-goes mentality in education will harm the state in immeasurable ways. It could cast the state as a backwards place without clear academic standards, further reduce its pool of college graduates and leave many parents confused about the quality of their children's schools.
The landmark House Bill 1017, passed in 1990 and supported by former Gov. Henry Bellmon, a Republican, increased academic standards, lowered class sizes and raised teacher salaries. It was student- and teacher-centered. The deregulation bill, in a sense, is the anti-HB 1017.
In its support for deregulating schools, the antiunion crowd seems obsessed with its bogus notion that some of the lowest-paid teachers in the nation have a unilateral power over education here. If so, wouldn't teachers here make a lot more money? If so, wouldn't they have better benefits? If so, wouldn't Oklahoma schools receive better funding?
The real power battle is between people who oppose public education and decent wages for all teachers and people who think children deserve viable, standards-driven learning opportunities presented by dedicated educators who make livable salaries.
Hochenauer is an English professor at the University of Central Oklahoma and the author of the progressive blog Okie Funk: Notes From The Outback, www.okiefunk.com.