The newly amended SB 634 is a poorly disguised Trojan Horse, and it has been left at the gates of public education. Under the guise of promising a new fringe benefit, the bill aims to silence the voices of teachers and school employees across the state, regardless of their political affiliation.
The original bill mandated excessive red tape on those wanting to join a professional teacher organization. It was a paternalistic mandate designed to nudge school employees away from membership. It placed the state directly into the financial affairs of teachers. The intention was clear: discourage all school employees (via excessive red tape) from spending their own money in a way that some in the State Legislature opposed. But many caught on and the bill fell out of favor. To regain support, the bill was amended.
Unfortunately, SB 634 has gone from Bad to Worse.
The newly amended SB 634 is still a paternalistic policy aimed at nudging school employees, but it attempts to do so by way of a carrot instead of a stick. The amendment removed a bit of the red tape (not all, but some) and added a mandate for the state to fund liability insurance for school employees. At first glance, this seems like a positive change. And it should be said upfront, school employee liability insurance is one of the services that Professional Oklahoma Educators (POE) and many of our competitors provide. So, at first glance, it also appears entirely self-serving for an organization like POE to oppose the newly amended SB 634. But again, this is only at first glance, please consider the following four points:
- The intention of SB 634 is to silence the school employees of Oklahoma by attacking the groups that advocate on their behalf. The Oklahoma Legislature convenes each year from February through May. All teachers and school employees are hard at work during these months, so they rely on organizations like POE to advocate for their best interest. To weaken and silence such organizations, some in the State Legislature are attempting to take a robust sector of the free market — i.e., school employee liability insurance — and hand it over to the control of the state. This is a blatant attempt to reduce membership in all professional organizations. The purpose is clear: silence the teachers and school employees of Oklahoma, no matter their political affiliation. In America, the free exchange of ideas and debate is a good thing, the suppression of it via government expansion is not. SB 634 is an attempt to obstruct the free exchange of ideas — namely, the ideas of teachers and school employees in Oklahoma.
- No one in the education community was consulted during the creation of SB 634 — no school districts, no support employees, no teachers. In fact, SB 634 was intentionally assigned to non-education committees in both the House and Senate to prevent former educators from voting against it. In Oklahoma, educators consistently ask for three things: smaller class sizes, appropriate class resources, and a fair wage. Liability insurance is a service they can easily purchase, or not purchase if they so choose. If the State Legislature is looking to invest additional funds into public education, please listen to the support employees, the teachers, and parents of Oklahoma, and collaboratively decided where to best invest the money. The state should not simply dictate to school employees what is best for them, especially without their input.
- The cost will be much higher than predicted. Recently, just under $1 million was mentioned as the predicted cost to provide liability insurance for all of Oklahoma’s school employees, approximately 85,000 individuals. This is equivalent to about $11 per person. Alabama implemented a similar policy a few years back; It cost the state just under $6 million annually to cover approximately 92,000 school employees. That is about $65 a person. Roughly speaking, $6 million could hire over 150 new teachers in Oklahoma, it could provide approximately 87,000 new textbooks for students, or it could simply be used to shore up the funds for existing school employee benefits. In education, $6 million is a large amount of money and determining how to best invest it is a worthwhile conversation.
- Conservative principles generally favor smaller government and a robust free market. SB 634 — a republican authored bill — directly contradicts such principles. The bill mandates an aggressive expansion of the government intended to stifle a particular sector of the free market. It removes a sector of the market and places it under the control of the state, at an added expense to the taxpayer. The bill, which no one in the education community requested, paternalistically nudges school employees to renounce their free choice to purchase the best liability insurance possible and instead rely on the state to provide the service. A service that will be subpar at best and potentially become an unfunded mandate in the future. SB 634 then is a republican authored bill that is antithetical to conservative values.
The situation is clear: SB 634 offers a so-called teacher benefit but only in exchange for silence. Once the voices of teachers and school employees are silenced, who will be left to speak for public education?