Some chamber of commerce groups and school administrator organizations in Oklahoma are no-doubt disappointed today: Oklahoma school boards will NOT be able to fire teachers, librarians, counselors, and other educators at will under an exemption “from all statutory requirements and State Board of Education rules from which charter schools are exempt as provided for in the Oklahoma Charter Schools Act.” This legislation was proposed this session in Oklahoma as Senate Bill 834. The enrolled version is available from the Oklahoma Secretary of State’s website. I did find an amended version on eCapitol.net from February 19, 2009, but I could not readily find a link to the amended version which Oklahoma Governor Brad Henry vetoed yesterday. If anyone knows of a link to the final version which was passed by both the House and Senate and sent to Governor Henry, please share the link here in a comment. I did not find the Oklahoma Legislature Homepage online to be very helpful or functional in this regard.

Veto SB 834

Tulsa World writer Barbara Hoberock titled her article about the veto today “Henry vetoes schools bill: He says the measure would have turned back the clock on decades of education reforms.” This is the lead, front page article on the printed/analog version Tulsa World today. Michael McNutt, writing for The Oklahoman / NewsOK, gave his article the headline, “School Deregulation Flunks With Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry: With Veto, Henry Says Sb 834 Would ‘Turn Back The Clock.’” This is a VERY big deal for our Oklahoma schools, so it’s interesting the headline seems buried in the online local news items on NewsOK.

I will not pretend to be an expert on this legislation or all the politics involved here, but I will share what I know. Joshua Williams has been keeping me up to date on some of the developments via his tweets on SB 834. A couple of weeks ago when I presented “Leveraging the Potential of Social Media for School Public Relations” at the 2009 Oklahoma School Public Relations Association conference, I visited with a representative of the Oklahoma Education Association (OEA.) She explained that some business groups in Oklahoma as well as school administrator associations (including the Oklahoma State School Boards Association) have supported this bill because it would free school boards, superintendents, and principals to fire educators at will without having to follow existing contract limitations and protections on educator contracts. The justification most are giving for this is the economy and our tough economic times for schools: It will make it much easier to make school budget cuts if administrators don’t have to mess with / respect these “pesky teacher contracts.” (That’s my paraphrase, not a quote from anyone directly.) While I certainly understand that administrators would like to make their lives easier by being able to hire and fire teachers at will, I also recognize that such a situation would open up teachers all over Oklahoma to arbitrary and capricious decisions by administrators to fire people they don’t like or want to work with for some reason. I’ve been in education long enough to know those sentiments DO exist on many campuses, and it’s VERY important that employment safeguards are in place to protect educators from such arbitrary treatment. We call this “due process” in the United States. I’m glad Governor Brad Henry vetoed SB834, not because our Oklahoma school system is perfect and isn’t in need of substantive reforms, but because this legislative effort was ill-conceived and potentially very harmful for the educators, students, and the educational system in our state.

There are several BIG issues here that do need to be addressed, but unfortunately this legislation would not have done so constructively.

The first issue is something I’ve referred to as “the dead wood” issue for teachers. We all have known and may still know teachers that simply should not be in the classroom. In some cases they hate kids, in others they refuse to do what’s best for kids if it causes them an inconvenience, in others they refuse to learn new techniques and ideas for better reaching kids and helping them learn. I’m reminded of a workshop I shared in a rural Oklahoma school back in 2007 about Google Earth. One of the teachers in the session played solitaire during the entire 45 minute presentation, refusing to look up from her screen at me or anyone else in the workshop or interact in any way with others in the room. Her unspoken but loud message was, “You can make me attend this professional development session, but you can’t make me listen or learn anything new.” It was sad. This anecdote actually highlights a rather minor instance of the “dead wood” problem, I know there are MANY cases which are much more egregious and harmful to kids. The bottom line is this: We need an educational system led by caring and strong administrators who ARE empowered to make the sometimes tough decisions which are in the best interests of students and the community. Teacher tenure has and continues, in many cases, to be an obstacle to the realization of this goal. Poor administrators who care more about coaching their sports team rather than providing instructional leadership within the school culture is an even bigger issue in many contexts, however.

The OEA representative with whom I spoke several weeks ago indicated that OEA had expressed a willingness to sit down with OSSBA and other groups to look at the current processes for teacher evaluation, probation and firing. Apparently this opportunity was not embraced by OSSBA and other administrator groups. Now that HB834 has been vetoed, perhaps these groups can sit down and work together on this issue. It IS real, and does need to be addressed more effectively.

The other big issue which the HB834 discussion highlights is MONEY. I could write at length about this, but I’ll attempt to summarize my thoughts in two main points:

  1. We have to pay our teachers more in Oklahoma. We are rated 48th in the nation in teacher salaries. It is impossible for us to meaningfully improve our schools and school system if we continue to offer such paltry salaries to educators, as well as ridiculously meager (and expensive) health benefits. We must pay our educators more to both attract and retain great teachers who are passionate about kids and learning.
  2. We must restructure the way education dollars are allocated in our state. Public education is a common good, not a private privilege. Visit some of our poorest urban and rural schools, and then visit some of our wealthiest schools in Deer Creek and Edmond. This phenomenon is not new, and it’s well known. Oprah focused on these types of school inequalities in her episode last year, “Failing Grade.” These inequitable facilities and opportunities for student education are UNACCEPTABLE, here in Oklahoma and elsewhere in the nation. We have got to get serious about addressing poverty on multiple levels in our nation, and the foundation of any strategy to reduce poverty is a high quality education. I am not entirely sure what form this school finance restructure needs to take, but I think “Tough Choices, Tough Times” is on the right track. We have to stop funding schools locally through property taxes, which are inherently inequitable, and instead pool education dollars so they can be dispersed in a truly equitable manner. This is not popular idea with real estate developers or racist / ethnocentric individuals. The common attitude in many wealthy areas seems to be, “We’ll just build more gated communities and take care of our own. Good luck to the poor, they’re on their own. We don’t care enough about them to give them the money their children need and deserve for a world class education.”

This YouTube video, “Trading Schools,” is from the Oprah segment I referenced above.

One of mechanisms I believe holds promise for improving educational quality and REAL accountability for teachers are online rating systems for educators. Pick-A-Prof is one of the best known systems used by college students nationwide, but other platforms inclusive of K-12 teachers also exist like RateMyTeachers.com. This isn’t a panacea, but I think overall MORE transparency leads to MORE information and BETTER decisions. The solution in cases of POOR democracy is MORE democracy. This is one reason I support the Change Congress movement. Upset because only the only ratings for educators at your school on sites like those above come from discontented / negative voices? Consider actually inviting students to post their ratings and thoughts. Look at what is happening in this regard in higher education, and ask if a similar dynamic could be positive for primary and secondary education. I’ve had this belief for many years: If schools permitted both parents and students to rate and evaluate teachers in schools, and those results were published online for all the world to see, that project could have more positive accountability effects for improving teaching and resolving real problems in classrooms than all the scantrons we pay Pearson to sell us as a state. When people are doing things that are wrong, generally they prefer the darkness to the light. Social media tools can be used in powerful, constructive ways to shine the light on people, actions, and topics which have been previously shrouded in a protective darkness. This dynamic is critical for a responsive democracy / republican government. We’ve got a long way to go, but I’m optimistic since so many powerful tools are now “at the fingertips of the people.”

The last issue I want to briefly address in this post relating to HB834 is the thick rhetoric which we hear from politicians and in the news articles covering education issues. In the two newspaper articles I referenced first in this post, why did we not hear the REAL reason business and school administrator groups want this legislation? If my sources are correct, the reason is those leaders want to be able to make budget cuts more easily in 2009-2010 by making fast personnel cuts. Instead of communicating in plain language we all can understand, we’ve heard politicians repeatedly talk about things like “quality standards.” My, is it not amazing how frequently politicians love to repeat the phrases “rigorous state standards” and “strict accountability?” This rhetoric almost makes me physically ill. Continuing to witness the failure of our elected leaders (at national as well as state levels) to articulate a constructive vision of substantive education reform builds my personal resolve to enter the political process at some point as an elected official myself.

We NEED to transform our schools to better meet the needs of our students, families, and communities in the 21st century. We did NOT need HB 834, however, and I’m personally glad to see the measure was vetoed. Thanks Governor Henry.

If you’re wanting to read more of my thoughts on education reform, and specifically how they relate to NCLB, see my February 2008 post, “A contrary view of education and NCLB.” The bottom line to a high quality education for students is high quality teachers. Thanks to all of you “in the trenches” of our classrooms, reading this post, who continue to serve the children and families of your community, our nation and world. You deserve our full support as citizens and taxpayers, and you deserve school administrators with the courage and gumption to do what is right even in difficult circumstances.

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2 Responses to Fire teachers at will legislation in Oklahoma vetoed by Oklahoma Governor Brad Henry

  1. Wesley Fryer says:

    The OK Policy blog post, “SB 834 – Empowering public schools or dismantling them?” has a good pro/con discussion of the bill and its impacts if it had passed.

  2. Andy says:

    I am not sure how well the “Robin Hood” funding has worked for Texas. Taking away is not good. Giving more is good. Edmond may be a wealthy town as far as property goes but the schools are still vastly underfunded.

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