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'Let's get rid of them': Bill incentivizing Oklahoma schools to go phone-free advances

James Yerema

A bill that would incentivize school districts to ban cell phones on campus got one step closer Tuesday to becoming law, but committee members opposing it say it doesn’t go far enough and shouldn’t come with a price tag.

Senate Bill 1314 by Senate Education Committee Chair Adam Pugh would offer districts $100,000 to $1 million dollars, based on enrollment size, to adopt a phone-free campus policy.

Participating districts would be subject to unannounced visits from OSDE officers to ensure compliance, and districts found not to be in compliance would be required to repay the incentive.

The bill comes with a projected $181.8 million price tag — something several members, like Sen. Julie Daniels (R-Bartlesville) took issue with.

“I’m ready to ban cell phones in schools,” Daniels said. “And I don’t believe we need to use tax dollars to incentivize people to do the right thing.”

While the bill passed 8-3, some members who voted for it still expressed hesitation with the incentive. Sen. Dave Rader (R-Tulsa) said he wanted Pugh to keep pushing the bill forward, even if he didn’t fully understand the high price tag.

“I hope with the superintendents, we wanted to encourage [them]... to leap out there. Do it,” Rader said. “Put them in the bags, whatever we’re going to do, but let’s get rid of them.”

Pugh made his case for the bill recalling a conversation he said he had with an Oklahoma superintendent who banned cell phones on campus. The superintendent told Pugh the district improved its state report card score from a C to an A, and that it’s stayed an “A” school for a decade. Behavior and discipline issues went down, the superintendent said, and student focus went up.

Pugh also appeared to waffle on the issue of incentives. At the beginning of the bill’s discussion, he floated potentially banning phones outright, but explained his reasoning for using incentives.

“I’ve thought a million times about, how do I incentivize? We could just ban cell phones, which may be where we get to,” Pugh said. “I don’t know if I’m comfortable doing that, but I want to incentivize schools first and give them the opportunity to maybe consider doing that. And that’s what this incentive program is trying to do.”

But by the end of the bill’s debate, Pugh acknowledged there was an appetite to strike the incentive.

“I think you all are convincing me that it’s within the purview of this committee to say, you just can’t have it inside a classroom or on a school campus,” Pugh said. “And we’re going to have that conversation.”

The bill now heads to the Senate Appropriations Committee.

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Beth Wallis is StateImpact Oklahoma's education reporter.
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