The recent bipartisan success of defeating SB 1647—universal school vouchers—has not gone unnoticed. But what has escaped the public spotlight is the long-term strategy to erode the advocacy of teachers and school employees in Oklahoma.
Two bills—SB 634 and SB 1592—are part of this strategy. Under the guise of helping school employees, these bills aim to lessen the voices of all Oklahoma teachers in the public forum. If the voices of school employees are diminished, then harmful education legislation could advance undeterred, a detrimental reality that would be felt most pointedly by rural families and Oklahoma’s most vulnerable students.
In short, these two bills are an attempt to remove educators from the conversation; they are bad policy paving the way for worse policy.
The first bill, SB 634, is a carryover bill from last year, and it has two parts: a stick and a carrot.
The first part of the bill alters the process for joining or terminating one’s membership in a professional education organization. Oklahoma law gives complete control of one’s membership status to the individual; you can join or quit at any time—immediately. SB 634 mandates a complicated bureaucratic system to dissuade school employees from joining. The proposed process would remove control from the individual and place it partly in the hands of a governmental state agency and an unspecified district administrator. The purpose is clear: implement red tape to discourage school employees from joining a professional organization.
From a recent POE survey, approximately 90% of POE members ‘strongly oppose’ or ‘oppose’ changing the current process. The most frequent comment on the question? “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it!”
The second part of the bill offers a supposed benefit: a $1 million government-provided liability insurance policy for all school employees. To be transparent, POE and many other professional organizations and firms offer personal liability insurance. The carrot strategy is straightforward: expand the state government to provide a service traditionally provided by professional education organizations. The intent is for the newly created competition from the state to reduce the membership of existing organizations. And if a professional education organization, like POE, advocates against the bill, the organization may appear to be advocating against a benefit for its members.
This is no doubt a clever strategy. Yet, there are at least three significant issues one should consider.
- Good professional organizations are not distinct from their members. They are their members. In a recent survey, less than 2% of POE members indicated government-provided personal liability insurance was a good idea. POE members overwhelmingly oppose the measure. They argue the funds can be better invested elsewhere. If the state is willing to allocate more money for education, why not invest it in the most critical areas?
- The bill proposal lacks substantive information. There is no insurance policy to review, nor are there specifics of what the policy would cover (or wouldn’t cover). What we do know is the amount of money the legislature intends to spend on the policy: between $800,000 and $1.8 million. A policy worth $1.8 million intended to cover 90,000 plus school employees is exceptionally cheap. The budget for a similar program in size and scope in Alabama was worth $10 million. At the current price, the Oklahoma policy would cover the bare minimum, contain numerous loopholes, and provide zero assistance in filing a claim or ensuring the claim is honored. Advertising such a policy as trustworthy is paramount to selling Oklahoma school employees an empty promise.
- National pundits, political operatives, and even some local politicians have openly articulated its purpose: to weaken the advocacy efforts of educators by harming the organizations that represent them. If they wanted to give individual school employees a real benefit with no strings attached, why not a pay raise, even if it were small?
The second bill, SB 1592, is just the carrot of SB 634. After strong opposition to SB 634 from POE members and school employees last year, SB 1592 was filed this year as an attempt to separate the issues. If SB 1592 could be sold as a benefit without the stick, perhaps it would garner more support or at least avoid strong opposition. Of course, we still see the bill for what it is; and the critiques leveled against it last year remain just as potent today.
The perspective of teachers, support staff, and administrators is absolutely vital to the public conversation about Oklahoma public schools. Of course, the views of parents, students, and community leaders must also be part of this conversation. All Oklahomans have made a constitutional commitment to maintain and support a robust public education system for all Oklahoma children, and we must work together to keep our promise. Any attempt to remove individuals from the conversation—especially the individuals who invest their time every day with students—is wrong. SB 634 and SB 1592 do not add to the public conversation. They seek to tear it down.
SB 1592 failed the committee deadline of April 14, 2022. Although there are potential ways the bill can come back, it is most likely dormant for the remainder of the 2022 session. SB 634, however, is still alive.
If you would like to get involved in the conversation, please visit POE’s Action Center. It takes only a few seconds to make a difference!
Below is the relevant section of Oklahoma law (70.5.139) and both bills (all versions).