Controversial new rules for public schools awaiting vote on Okla. House floor

OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. — Controversial rules about public school operations and accreditation proposed by State Superintendent Ryan Walters (R) are now awaiting a vote on the floor of the Oklahoma House of Representatives.

Walters has proposed tying things like state testing scores, compliance with library material regulations, teacher behavior and performance, and even mandatory time in school for prayer to a district’s accreditation.

A district must have accreditation by the state in order to operate. If a district has issues, the Oklahoma State Department of Education and the State School Board can downgrade a district’s accreditation. If there are too many problems and downgrades, a district’s accreditation could be revoked. That would mean a district would have to shut down operations.

“I believe they have to have specific authority and direction, and I believe they did on the vast majority of those rules and so that’s why we passed it,” said House Administrative Rules Chairman Gerrid Kendrix (R-Altus).

Republicans on the House Administrative Rules Committee voted 7-3, with one Republican joining Democrats, to approve Walters’ rules. Kendrix said the feeling of the committee wasn’t necessarily if they agreed or disagreed with the direction the policies take schools but if Walters had the authority to make and request the new rules. Many on the committee felt he does and should be given the authority to make the changes he ran on in 2022.

“This is all based on fear, uncertainty, and doubt, and the challenge is, when we start basing things on fear, do we make the right decisions?” Kendrix said about concerns being voiced from the opposition.

Public school groups and public education advocates flooded the committee members with phone calls and e-mails saying the new rules are too harsh and would lead to some districts shutting down, especially in rural areas.

“If we want to improve, where are the resources to help us improve instead of leading with a hammer? This is unfair across the board,” said State Representative Melissa Provenzano (D-Tulsa).

Democrats said the Oklahoma State Department of Education is being weaponized by these new rules so Walters can go after districts that didn’t vote for him when he was running for office. They also said they put too much pressure on special education students, and if a district shuts down, it would have disastrous economic consequences for the areas they are in.

“These rules tie high stakes testing to accreditation, not academics. It’s just a one day snapshot. Year one is this year. It begins with the requirement that all kids in a district must test with 50 percent proficiency and begins to strip accreditation from school districts. That’s the stated goal,” Provenzano said.

Opponents of the changes both lawmakers and advocacy groups said the fight is just getting started as the rules make their way to the full House floor. It is there where more Republican lawmakers who work on education policy are expected to have more of a say.

If the rules are not approved or voted down by the end of session, approval will rest in the hands of Governor Kevin Stitt (R) who has previously approved all rules proposed by Walters.

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