Oklahoma lawmakers, parents rethinking past education reforms

Efforts result in rolling back of educational reforms from previous years.
By Nate Robson, Oklahoma Watch Published: April 19, 2014
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One by one, K-12 education reforms passed in previous years by Oklahoma lawmakers are being targeted for weakening or repeal.

Among them: Common Core State Standards, the Reading Sufficiency Act, A-F school grades for districts, and middle school end-of-instruction exams for history and social studies. These all could be scaled back or revoked by various legislative bills that have passed in both the House and Senate.

It is Republicans, who have driven the accountability and testing movement statewide and nationally, who are voting in sometimes large majorities to roll back reforms.

It’s too early to tell how far the retrenchment will go, and whether it’s a temporary shift driven by cautionary election-year strategies that will abate after the primary in June and general election in November. But so far, the fallback does not appear to be letting up, in Oklahoma or nationally.

Education officials and advocates cite various reasons for the tempering of reforms, but one of the most frequent is a pushback from parents, teachers and other voters.

“I think their constituents are getting engaged and involved,” said Meredith Exline, president of the Oklahoma Central Parent Legislative Action Committee. “They are paying attention to the issues, and they will look at their options when it’s time to vote.”

One of the biggest changes in the making is the relaxing of the mandatory retention of third-graders who fail the state’s reading assessment administered under the Reading Sufficiency Act. On Wednesday, the Republican-controlled Senate passed the bill, 43-1, and it now heads back to the House for final consideration.

The House passed its version of the bill, 84-6, on March 4. Among other things, the bill would allow a panel of parents, teachers and school leaders to let a student who failed the test advance to fourth grade and receive intervention.

Many parents and teachers have spoken out against mandatory retention tied to the reading test, saying it does more harm than good for students. Opponents have also said the test means third-grade teachers are only focused on one test.

Supporters of the law say the state should not give “social promotion” to third-graders who are only reading at a first-grade level. They also point to the existing exemptions that allow students who fail the test but show reading proficiency to move to fourth grade.

Amber England, the government affairs director for Stand for Children Oklahoma, which advocates for school reforms, said repealing mandatory retention could be seen as a sign that the government has failed to properly fund reading programs that were supposed to make the Reading Sufficiency Act successful. She pointed to Oklahoma’s ranking as 49th in the nation in per-pupil funding.

“Schools are being asked to do a whole lot of new things, but they are not getting any money to do them,” England said. “These measures are in jeopardy because the Legislature hasn’t provided the money to do them properly.”

In some cases, the about-face of state leaders on education reforms has been dramatic.

In August, Gov. Mary Fallin’s spokesman, Alex Weintz, told Oklahoma Watch that Fallin supports Common Core standards, adopted by the Legislature in 2010, because they would bring more rigorous benchmarks to public schools.

“We’re interested in results,” Weintz said. “We’ve seen results in other states.”

In March, Fallin said she would sign pending legislation that would repeal Common Core, although she still stressed the need for toughening standards.

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Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that produces in-depth and investigative content on a range of public-policy issues in the state. For more Oklahoma Watch content, go to www.oklahomawatch.org.

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