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Published in Print: March 31, 1999, as Tougher Graduation Requirements Rebuffed in Oklahoma

Tougher Graduation Requirements Rebuffed in Oklahoma

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The House education committee of the Oklahoma legislature once again has swatted down Gov. Frank Keating's "4 x 4" plan for increasing the rigor of earning a high school diploma.

The "4 x 4" concept, which the second-term Republican has championed since he took office in 1995, would require high school students to take four years each of English, science, mathematics, and social studies in order to graduate. Oklahoma now requires four years of English, three of science, two of math, and two of social studies.

But, undeterred after five years of rejection by key Democratic legislators, Mr. Keating is trying harder than ever to get his plan passed this year, state politicians agree.

"This year, the governor has made ["4 x 4"] more of an issue; he feels that it's the only way to go," Rep. Jack Begley, a Democratic member of the education committee and the chairman of its subcommittee on appropriations, said last week.

"He's drawn a line in the sand," Oklahoma's secretary of education, Floyd Coppedge, said. "He's said there'll be no new dollars that aren't reform dollars."

Mr. Begley, who opposes the "4 x 4" idea, said he has found little support for it among educators in local school districts.

Many school boards, administrators, and educators in vocational programs fear such a requirement would increase their costs while taking educational choices away from students, more of whom would then drop out of school, according to Bob Mooneyham, the executive director of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association.

Randall K. Raburn, the executive director of the Oklahoma Association of School Administrators, said districts' costs would go up because they would have to pay more to attract and retain teachers qualified in the advanced subjects. In addition, he said, schools would feel obliged to keep elective course offerings, even as fewer students had time to attend them. Under a 1990 school reform law, high schools already are required to offer a "4 x 4" array of courses to students who ask for them.

Gov. Frank Keating

Supporters of the governor's plan say the costs of "4 x 4" would be partially offset by savings from discontinued elective courses, that the requirements could be met in "applied" math and science courses tailored to vocationally minded students, and that requiring any less from students would be selling them short.

They add that the higher standard would help the state produce workers who are ready to function in a high-tech economy. Currently, nearly 40 percent of the state's high school graduates who enter college right after graduation must take at least one remedial course as freshmen.

And Oklahoma business leaders have warned that they are having to look outside the state to find new employees with adequate skills for the best jobs.

Another Chance

Senate Bill 800, the "4 x 4" plan that the House education committee rejected on a 30-10 vote last week, already had been watered down from the original version offered by Sen. Kathleen L. Wilcoxson, a Republican.

The revised bill stated that the tougher courseload should be a goal rather than a requirement for graduation, at least until the state's expenditures for education have risen to the regional average.

Though SB 800 is officially dead, the "4 x 4" concept will almost certainly reappear in the deliberations of a joint House and Senate committee that will try to reconcile a pile of surviving education bills. They include proposals on school choice and scholarships for students who take tougher courseloads.

The governor's staff will be involved in those talks, and with considerable leverage, Mr. Keating's spokesman, Dan Mahoney, said. Mr. Keating must approve any use of the state's "rainy day" surplus fund--about $150 million in leftover general revenue that legislators could spend on such items as buildings, technology, and road-construction.

"The governor has told them if you want to spend money out of the rainy-day fund, you give me real education reform," Mr. Mahoney said.

Tougher graduation requirements could also come from another source: the state school board, whose chairwoman is Superintendent of Public Instruction Sandy Garrett, a Democrat. Last week, the board, which sets diploma standards, voted to hold hearings in April on a plan to require four years each of English and math, and three years each of social studies and science.

Vol. 18, Issue 29, Page 16

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