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Republicans advance controversial Oklahoma State Department of Education rules out of committee

The Oliver Hodge Building in Oklahoma City
Kyle Phillips
For Oklahoma Voice
The Oklahoma State Department of Education is based inside the Oliver Hodge Building in Oklahoma City.

A series of party-line votes advanced new rules from the Oklahoma State Department of Education that would tie a school district’s accreditation status to test results, create “foundational values” for the agency and allow teachers to be fired for engaging in acts that “promote sexuality,” among several other proposals.

The Republican majority on the House Administrative Rules Committee rejected 10 amendments from Democratic lawmakers, who sought to block some of the rules from progressing further.

The committee on Tuesday struck down only one of about 20 rules from the state Education Department. Committee members voted 9-1 against having Classic Learning Test scores count toward academic scholar and seal of biliteracy awards.

Republican lawmakers on the committee had raised concerns in previous meetings that the Classic Learning Test isn’t widely accepted among colleges and isn’t a proper substitute for the ACT or SAT. The exam tests reading, grammar and math with an emphasis on classic literature and historical texts.

But if it were up to the panel’s leader, Rep. Gerrid Kendrix, R-Altus, that rule would have been approved, too.

“Honestly, I do not have a problem with the Classic Learning Test,” Kendrix said while speaking with reporters after the meeting. “That was an amendment that I did to make sure that I had enough votes to get the resolution out of the committee.”

The package of rules now advances to the House floor for a potential vote by the full chamber. If the House approves the regulations, they would continue to the Senate, which has the option to vote or allow the governor to decide whether to enact the rules.

The proposals have attracted significant attention, particularly over their potential impact on school accreditation, which defines a school district’s standing with the state.

Any district that has fewer than half of its students scoring at a basic performance level on state reading and math tests would suffer an accreditation deficiency, under the proposed rules. The district’s accreditation status would be lowered even further in subsequent years if it fails to improve test scores by at least 5%.

The rules do not specify a death-knell scenario where a district would lose accreditation entirely, but Democrats still voiced fears that low-performing schools could close if the proposals become law.

Rep. Melissa Provenzano, D-Tulsa, said the rules would unfairly punish schools with greater numbers of impoverished students and children with disabilities. State test results show these two groups tend to score lower than their peers.

“If we want to improve, where are the resources to help us improve instead of leading with a hammer?” Provenzano said after the meeting. “This is unfair across the board.”

State Superintendent Ryan Walters said the new rules his administration created are “common sense.” (Photo by Nuria Martinez-Keel/Oklahoma Voice) State Superintendent Ryan Walters said the package of rules is “common sense.”

“We must do better for our kids,” he posted on social media Tuesday. “These rules help get our kids a better education.”

Provenzano and Rep. Amanda Swope, D-Tulsa, filed 10 amendments to challenge several of Walters’ proposals, many of which they said the Legislature never asked to be created.

They objected to new “foundational values” for the state Education Department that reference “the Creator” as the author of universal, self-evident truths and the one who bestowed ultimate authority over children’s education to their parents.

They criticized another proposal that would allow schools to fire teachers for engaging in sexual acts or acts that “promote sexuality” in the presence of a minor or in a manner available to a minor online. Swope said the rule could be unconstitutional.

The Democratic lawmakers also fought against a measure that would take away automatic approval from the Oklahoma State School Boards Association to give training to school board members. With automatic approval revoked, OSSBA would have to apply for permission each year from the state Education Department to give board training.

Walters has said OSSBA would have to “quit being a woke, left-wing association” to get approval from his agency.

OSSBA is a nonpartisan organization. It has said the rule could “make it more difficult for school board members to access timely, relevant continuing education.”

The rule sparked one of the lengthiest exchanges between committee members.

Kendrix noted OSSBA is the only non-state agency that has automatic approval to give school board training. No other third-party groups have the same privilege.

“Wouldn’t you agree that would be government picking winners and losers or playing favorites with one organization over another?” Kendrix questioned during the meeting.

One by one, the committee’s eight Republicans struck down the amendments from their Democratic colleagues.

Then, the committee voted 7-3 to advance the package of rules, with only Provenzano, Swope and Rep. Rande Worthen, R-Lawton, voting against it.

“What we saw today was disappointing because we respond to our constituents,” Provenzano said afterward. “Our inboxes are full. Our phone lines are full. The visits to our office are full. People are concerned about their schools being shut down.”

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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