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Oklahoma Senate Narrowly Passes Education Bill

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A major education-reform package squeaked through the Oklahoma Senate last week following nearly two months of intensive partisan maneuvering over such issues as school consolidation, parental choice, and tax increases.

The bill passed by a 25-to-23 vote after Democratic leaders, with help from the Republican Governor, Henry Bellmon, finally persuaded two Republicans to vote for it.

Like the bill passed by the House in November, the Senate measure contains a wide variety of initiatives to improve education, ranging from early-childhood programs and increased teacher salaries to extensive curriculum revisions. (See Education Week, Nov. 22, 1989.)

The Senate bill had been approved by the education and finance committees early last month. Progress on the bill slowed, however, when Democratic leaders insisted that Mr. Bellmon produce some gop votes for the bill and its potentially unpopular tax increases.

Many Democrats were angered at the lack of Republican support for the bill because they said they had compromised with the minority party on key issues.

But Republican leaders said their talks with the majority never touched on tax issues. Most Republicans wanted to drop the bill's half-cent sales-tax increase.

Consolidation Debate

Differences over the school-consolidation issue are expected to be a major sticking point in House-Senate conference negotiations, which began late last week.

The Senate education committee approved a school-consolidation amendment that tied mergers to school accreditation and allowed for a grace period of several years.

But that plan was amended on the floor to stipulate that all schools not currently meeting requirements for a full K-12 program must begin consolidation next year. The floor amendment also would draw $35 million from the constitutional "rainy day" fund to pay school districts that voluntarily consolidated or annexed.

The House plan contains language throughout the bill stating that, if a school fails to meet certain mandates, the state school board may move for consolidation.

The Senate amendment, by contrast, is an independent section in the bill, has stronger mandates, and would speed up the process.

The bills also differ over parental choice and merit pay for teachers.

In the Senate bill, Republicans successfully attached a choice plan that would allow for "open transfers" across district lines for all grade levels. The House bill would allow choice only at the prekindergarten and kindergarten level.

Senate Republicans were also successful in getting a merit-pay proposal in the bill. It requires the state board to draw up five different merit-pay plans. School districts would have to adopt one of the plans by the 1991-92 school year.

Between 10 and 25 percent of teachers could receive up to 20 percent of their salaries under the Senate merit-pay plan.

The House bill calls for slower implementation of merit pay.--rrw

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