Bills, Bills, Bills (Silver Lining Edition)

Bills, Bills, Bills -- Jonathan Coulton at the Tuesday Night Concert of JoCo Cruise Crazy

I’m not known for the sunshine I spread or my rainbow-themed unicorn farm. I’m surrounded by edu-bloggers in Oklahoma and beyond who are both smarter and more experienced than myself, and I’m under no illusions about the role I play.

But I do believe in being pragmatic. Having spent most of 2016 burning energy I didn’t have promoting the so-called ‘Teacher Caucus’ and related issues in #OKElections16, and having had slightly less than zero impact (the pro-education newbies who won were the handful I’d never gotten around to writing about), I’d like to try to find approaches that might, you know… work. Or at the very least, play against type – like Daniel Radcliffe.

I don’t want to be naked horse guy, though – but it’s like I’ve been naked horse guy and now I want to be a wizard…

This has gone way off course, hasn’t it? 

The 2017 Oklahoma Legislature officially convenes on February 6th. The rules vary between houses, but for the most part bills have to be submitted a couple of weeks ahead of time. 

Which is now.

OK Legislature

Should you go poking around on oklegislature.gov or openstates.org/ok, you’ll discover a wide variety of bills and resolutions and thinly veiled cries for help. A few warnings should you decide to venture forth unprepared… 

“Shell Bills” are a thing. Because State Representatives have to submit bills ahead of time, and have a limited number allowed, it’s not uncommon for them to throw together something filled with essentially meaningless language as a placeholder of sorts. Sometimes these end up being fleshed out with details related to their working title, other times they simply wither on the statutory vine. Occasionally they end up being bills about entirely different things altogether. It’s a misleading quirk of the system. 

Every year brings a ridiculous number of bills fetishizing guns, proposing draconian punishments for abortion, fighting back against perceived abuses by the federal government, etc. Most of these never make it through a committee – they’re just there so demagogues can appease angry and/or ignorant voters in their respective districts. These are sometimes referred to as “red meat” bills. 

Bills aren’t automatically put before the entire House or Senate. Some die right there in their sponsor’s arms, like buried flowers. Others are assigned to a related committee, where they may or may not be discussed, may or may not be approved, and may or may not continue their journey “I’m Just A Bill” style.  House versions are reconciled with Senate versions, etc., until a small handful go to the Governor to sign – or not. 

Just because something’s listed here doesn’t mean it’s going to be a thing. Don’t get your hopes up or expect your legislator to have the slightest idea what you’re talking about should you call and ask them to support one of these. 

And yet, that’s largely why I’ve gathered them here – so you can call, and email, and bring them up at meetings. So we can have things to support and not just things to oppose. So we can bring solutions and not just – 

Oh god, maybe I DO have a unicorn farm. Is that Celine Dion playing in the background? Has Meghan Loyd hacked my account?!

Unicorn Farm

Whatever my frustrations – and they are legion – I think we can do a better job this session of starting off positive. Of demonstrating that we can be informed and rational and not all racist thugs like Rick Cobb. 

Sorry – inside joke. Rick is not a racist thug. See, what happened was…

I’m off course again. Sorry. Legislation is boring. 

Here are a few things worth looking at, asking about, and possibly promoting as we march boldly into the fray. Please feel free to add anything I’ve overlooked in the comments, or email me. Heck, write a guest blog about some of them if you like. 

Light is all we have. 

Pay Raise Bills

The Tulsa World recently did a nice slideshow highlighting some bills which caught their attention, including a variety of teacher raise proposals. Because I’m still rather skeptical of the chances of ANY of these passing, I’ll just share the highlights here:

Proposed Teacher Pay Raises

HB 1115 – Representative Avery Frix (R), HD 13

This would prohibit the state legislature from passing new mandates on public schools unless they’re willing to fund them as well. Crazy kid – clearly Frix is new here! 

HB 1279 – Representative Jason Dunnington (D), HD88

This would return income tax rates to what they were a little over a decade ago for the state’s highest earners. It would also remove the Oklahoma Capital Gains Deduction which was enacted in 2004 and benefits the top sliver of Oklahoma’s wealthiest almost exclusively. 

Dunnington argues this would generate more than $500 million in recurring revenue – recurring revenue, not the kind you get by selling grandma’s car at the auction. He’s quick to mention teacher pay as something that revenue might be useful to fund.

It strikes me as a long-shot – it will be smeared as a “tax increase” – but for the first time in a while, legis seem to be talking seriously about meaningful ways to get un-broke, so who knows? Two of the bill’s three sections simply close existing tax loopholes – and that’s something we all at least claim to support. 

In any case, this is a good one to get behind and call YOUR representative in support of. 

HB 1351 – Representative Monroe Nichols (D), HD72

Currently, the Oklahoma Higher Learning Access Program (aka “Oklahoma’s Promise”) helps pay for college for students who meet basic requirements in High School and who fall below a certain income level. There’s an exception made for military families (who tend to move around a great deal) – their kids qualify regardless. This would add a similar exception for teachers’ kids. 

It would be a simple, almost revenue-neutral way to show some love to educators. I’m just saying. 

HB 1352 – Representative Monroe Nichols (D), HD72

Since 2011, Oklahoma has had the “Oklahoma Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship Act.” Essentially this allows individuals or businesses to donate money to a ‘scholarship fund’ which is disbursed as a sort of voucher (i.e., “scholarship”) to parents who’d like their child in private school. These individuals and businesses get a substantial tax break on moneys so donated. 

This bill would add the option of donating money under similar conditions with the same limits and tax benefits to an endowment to fund the salaries of public school teachers. I’m not clear on how this works in terms of disbursement, but the idea amuses me to no end. It’s brilliant.  

HB 1760 – Representative Katie Henke (R), HD71

Students in Kindergarten through Third Grade are monitored regularly for reading proficiency. Students in Third Grade take a reading exam (often referenced as the RSA – Reading Sufficiency Act) to determine whether or not they’ll advance to Fourth Grade. 

Currently, students who do not pass this exam are not automatically promoted to Fourth Grade. A small team of the child’s parent(s), teacher, and a school reading specialist or similar professional meet to decide whether it makes more sense to retain the child another year or move them to Fourth Grade with additional reading support. The idea is that some kids just need more time to marinate where they are, while others should progress but with increased support. 

This compromise ends this year and retention could become mandatory (no discretion left to the parents and teachers) unless this or something like it passes this session. 

This bill is very similar to HB 2158 sponsored by Representative Jadine Nollan (R), HD66, and SB 123 sponsored by Senator J.J. Dossett (D), SD34. That’s neither unusual nor bad; it suggests widespread interest in making this happen. They can work out any minor differences once things are rolling. 

HB 2154 – Representative Jadine Nollan (R) – HD66

This would continue altering the rubrics and algorithms of the Oklahoma A-F School Shaming System. It has lots of words in it and bunches of stuff in current law which it would cut, so I make no promises about my full understanding, but the gist of it seems to be to dial back the more abusive elements of A-F, citing the flexibility allowed by the ESSA

It retains the A-F report itself, which I despise, but the innards seem to be gradually reworked in order to make the package less loathsome. I’d speculate this is a pragmatic compromise on the part of pro-education leadership with those who simply insist on looking tough on those damn teachers. The fact that no one will go on record with me to confirm this pretty much convinces me that’s the case. But, that’s just me – speculating. 

HB 2158 – Representative Jadine Nollan (R), HD66 

See HB 1760 above. 

Sloopy Gang - The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill (Beatles-cover)

SB 2 – Senator J.J. Dossett (D) – SD34 

This eliminates the U.S. History state test currently required of all high school students in Oklahoma. Now, we all know what’s going to happen. We cry out that there’s too much testing and it doesn’t do what proponents claim it does and why can’t we have fewer tests OMG OMG OMG! Then, someone suggests eliminating a test from the pantheon and we panic in reverse – ARE YOU SAYING MY SUBJECT ISN’T IMPORTANT ENOUGH TO TEST?! WHY DO YOU HATE AMERICA?! 

This doesn’t remove U.S. History from the “stuff schools are required to teach” pile. Like Oklahoma History and American Government, it’s still a requirement – just not a state test. Calm the hell down. 

On a side note, I think this one has at least some potential to erupt into the most fascinating patriotism-pissing contest if someone decides to go after it as anti-American or some such nonsense. Not saying it will – certainly not suggesting it should – but we have a weird relationship with history in this state. We don’t like it really, but we like it in theory and want to pretend we care about it deeply. It’s our arm-candy third wife, as it were. 

SB 9 – Senator J.J. Dossett (D) – SD34 

This would eliminate the straight-party voting option from Oklahoma ballots. That’s not directly related to public education, but it would do education a huge favor if voters were expected to at least look at the names before them and consider whether or not they know anything about that person’s positions or record before checking that box. 

I know taking ten minutes to get informed before voting sucks, but we can try. 

Voters elected and re-elected by substantial margins legislators openly hostile to public education in November 2016. They then turned around and told pollsters that their NUMBER ONE CONCERN for the upcoming legislature is supporting public education. They’re either lying or ignorant. I assume they’re lying – they want to sound like good people when polled, so they pretend they give a damn. This bill presumes they’re merely ignorant, and don’t see the connection. It doesn’t promise they won’t still vote straight ticket, but they have to take a few more tiny steps suggesting they mean it. 

SB 123 – Senator J.J. Dossett (D) – SD34 

See HB 1760 above. 

SB 124 – Senator J.J. Dossett (D) – SD34 

This would prohibit public money from being used, directly or indirectly, to support private schools (w/ the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships for Students with Disabilities being a specific exception). This is obviously an effort to erect a roadblock to future voucher bills, and difficult to argue with it as a matter of principle.

SJR 32 – Senator J.J. Dossett (D) – SD34 

This would put to a vote of the people a change in the Oklahoma Constitution which would require appropriates for public education to be made separately from general appropriations, and first. Man, give a guy an unexpected special election win and a year later he’s getting all saucy! 

I'm sure there are some I've missed, and I know there are several I didn't miss but am not sure how to explain (since I barely understand them myself). Feel free to add those you come across in the Comments below. 

I'm still skeptical anything good is coming, but that doesn't change our obligation to try. Be prepared, be firm but polite, and for golly gosh jeepers - BE INVOLVED. 

I'm Just a Bill

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