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Oklahoma lawmakers report 'bipartisan concern' with Walters' new education rules

Oklahoma's Capitol Dome
Kateleigh Mills
Oklahoma's Capitol Dome

New rules from the Oklahoma State Department of Education — ranging from “foundational values” to accreditation penalties — are meeting bipartisan scrutiny in the state Legislature.

Lawmakers from both parties have expressed concern over new regulations from state Superintendent Ryan Walters and whether they have shaky legal ground.

Democrats have called for an outright rejection of the rules. They said the Oklahoma State Department of Education created the regulations without the Legislature first passing a related law.

“Leave the lawmaking to us,” Rep. Melissa Provenzano, D-Tulsa, said in a statement. “I can tell you that as we continue to work on these rules in the House, there does appear to be an effort at this point on both sides of the aisle to get this right.”

The Legislature has the power to approve administrative rules from state agencies, reject them or allow the governor to decide. Administrative rules have the force of law and are meant to build upon statutes lawmakers create.

Although Democrats have been the most vocal opponents of Walters’ rules, there are doubts on both sides of the aisle, some lawmakers said.

“I would say that that is the movement that I am seeing right now,” Sen. Bill Coleman, R-Ponca City, said. “Certainly, there’s bipartisan concern.”

Coleman said his thumb is “leaning a bit more down” on a proposal to have districts’ state test scores count against their accreditation. Walters has suggested lowering the accreditation status of schools where more than 50% of students score below a basic level on state reading and math tests — a measure the state superintendent said promotes a results-oriented approach.

“In hearing from educators across the state on that, it sounds like something that really is not going to be for the benefit of the students of the state of Oklahoma,” Coleman said.

Sen. Mary Boren, D-Norman, said the rule would be especially punitive for schools educating a large number of students with disabilities and districts with high rates of poverty.

“Those schools would be drastically harmed by the state Department of Education’s power grab to go outside their legislative authority,” Boren said.

Coleman and Boren are members of the Senate Administrative Rules Committee, which reviewed about 20 proposed regulations from the state Education Department on Monday.

The committee’s two Democrats, Boren and Oklahoma City Sen. Michael Brooks, raised concerns that the agency created the rules without proper permission from the Legislature.

Walters’ administration has said it acted within its rights to develop the rules.

“Democrats took aim at the Oklahoma Constitution, well-established precedent, and the clear will of Oklahomans today,” Walters said in a statement after the committee meeting. “Democrats will stop at nothing to try to regain control of our kids’ education, and on behalf of Oklahoma students, our families in Oklahoma will never give in to their demands.”

Lawmakers must pass a related law first for a state agency to create an administrative rule, according to a 2023 opinion from Attorney General Gentner Drummond.

Walters’ administration cited the Education Department’s general authority over the public school system as reason to create new rules that declare “foundational values” centered on a Creator and that apply state test results to accreditation, among other new regulations.

Drummond’s opinion contends this is an insufficient legal basis for rulemaking.

“Whether I agree or disagree with any particular rule in question is irrelevant if the Board does not have the proper authority to issue those rules,” Drummond said after issuing his opinion last year. “The Legislature is vested with policymaking authority. I will not allow any state agency, board or commission to usurp the Legislature’s rightful role, even if they have the best of intentions.”

The Senate committee will conduct its own review of the Education Department’s rules while keeping the attorney general’s stance in mind, said the chairperson, Sen. Micheal Bergstrom, R-Adair.

“I certainly have respect for the attorney general,” Bergstrom said. “But we’re going to, as committee members, evaluate the situation for ourselves. We do have that responsibility as members of the legislature.”

After the committee meeting, Bergstrom said the state agency “provided numerous references to other sources for their rule making authority beyond what was in the AG opinion.” He said it was “disappointing” there was little discussion on the rules’ merit.

Leaders of both the Senate and House committees on administrative rules said they intend to vote on the agency’s proposals.

The House Administrative Rules Committee will meet Monday to discuss any concerns.

“Any time we have anything that’s controversial, I always try to get members from both sides of the aisle to look at it so that we have a good viewpoint from both views,” said the committee’s chairperson, Rep. Gerrid Kendrix, R-Altus.

Janelle Stecklein contributed to this report.

Oklahoma Voice is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oklahoma Voice maintains editorial independence.

Nuria Martinez-Keel covers education for Oklahoma Voice. She worked in newspapers for six years, more than four of which she spent at The Oklahoman covering education and courts. Nuria is an Oklahoma State University graduate.
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