Law & Principles

Ray Carter | May 6, 2022

Oklahoma House struggles to advance reforms

Ray Carter

In recent weeks, the Republican leadership of the Oklahoma House of Representatives has struggled to advance even modest reforms, in sharp contrast with the Republican-controlled Oklahoma Senate.

Recently, House lawmakers effectively killed two bills when the measures were not given a hearing before a legislative deadline, even though both measures enjoyed broad public support. One of the bills that failed to get a hearing was even authored by House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka. Despite Republicans holding 82 of the 101 seats in the Oklahoma House of Representatives, McCall’s bill did not advance.

Senate Bill 962, by state Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat and McCall, would shift the general election for school-board seats to November, placing them on a general-election ballot along with high-profile races such as presidential and gubernatorial elections.

Senate Bill 634, by state Sen. Julie Daniels and state Rep. Terry O’Donnell, requires schools to obtain annual reauthorization from district employees for union-dues paycheck deductions.

While both measures won Senate approval, neither has cleared the House. The House’s inaction has not gone unnoticed.

Some parents have been particularly vocal about the House’s failure to act on the school-board issue in a year when some school boards have responded with indifference or defiance to local parental concerns.

While the House recently passed legislation to prohibit schools from mandating that girls and boys share bathroom and locker-room spaces, parents have noted the election reform provided in SB 962 would likely increase parental influence in local school policy so parents do not have to lobby legislators to change state law every time a school board enacts a controversial policy.

In a recent Facebook post, Liz Miller, an Edmond mother, said she supports efforts to keep students “safe in bathrooms” and “using the bathroom that correlates with their biological gender,” but added, “SB 962 should have been a priority.”

“Our representatives failed students and parents by not providing an avenue for more voter participation in school board races,” Miller wrote. “Our school board members should be reflective of our entire community, not the 3% they currently are.”

Margaret Best, an Edmond parent who previously ran for a school board seat in 2021, similarly wrote that it is “beyond frustrating to get the runaround from these politicians” who “use bills like 962 as a bargaining chip in their games down at the Capitol.”

Oklahoma school-board elections are notable for extremely low voter turnout.

In March 2021, a district-wide primary election for Oklahoma City School Board chair drew a turnout rate of less than 4 percent. Recent school-board races in Edmond, which gained far more publicity than most such races, drew turnout of roughly 7 percent.

In contrast, turnout for the November 2020 election involved about 55 percent of eligible voters.

Academic researchers have warned low-turnout school-board elections can allow school boards to ignore the needs of the families whose children they are supposed to serve.

Research published by the Annenberg Institute at Brown University in January 2020 reviewed data from four states, including Oklahoma, and found that “the majority of voters in a typical school board election in each of the four states we examine is ‘unlikely’ to have children.”

Researchers warned the composition of the electorate in spring school-board elections can result in school-board members having “less incentive to respond to the needs of constituents who account for a smaller share of their electorate,” such as parents.

“The biggest bill for us that did not happen is Senate Bill 634.” —Ivy Riggs, political organizer for the Oklahoma Education Association, praising lawmakers for killing SB 634

“America’s system of deference to local school boards in making essential educational governance decisions is premised on the assumption that the objectives of voters who elect these boards will be aligned with the educational interests of public-school students,” researchers wrote. “Our analysis points to several reasons for doubting the validity of this assumption in many contexts.”

The Annenberg paper also stated that moving school board elections “to coincide with higher-turnout national elections” could “significantly boost the political representation of households with children and increase the racial diversity of the electorate.”

Concerns that low-turnout elections cause school board members to ignore community needs have been bolstered by recent cases in Oklahoma, where some district school boards have fiercely resisted local parental concerns.

In April, despite numerous parental requests to the contrary, the Stillwater school board approved a resolution vowing to continue allowing boys to use the girls’ bathrooms if the boys say they identify as females, and said the district would not change course “unless it has no choice but to alter its practice because of binding authority directing otherwise.”

In Edmond, parents sued the school district after officials mandated that unvaccinated students be quarantined for up to 10 days after potential exposure to COVID but did not require the same quarantine for similarly situated vaccinated students.

A judge ruled in favor of the parents, finding the Edmond policy was “irrational” and likely violated students’ constitutional rights. The judge noted evidence showed the school’s quarantine policy “provided no benefit in slowing the spread of COVID-19” but did “inflict tremendous harm on some of those students, pushing some to the brink of suicide, while causing others to fall significantly behind in their studies.”

Yet the Edmond district continues to fight parents in court, appealing the ruling.

That case is one reason Oklahomans for Health and Parental Rights supported SB 962.

In a statement of support, Liza Greve, executive director of Oklahomans for Health and Parental Rights, noted that Edmond Public Schools “is continuing to appeal to the Oklahoma Supreme Court, wasting more taxpayer dollars, to attempt to continue to discriminate against students based upon the health choices of their parents for a vaccine that is not required and is protected by medical privacy …”

She said SB 962 would make such incidents less likely to occur in the future.

“These legal battles between schools, parents, and the Legislature could become less frequent if parents felt they had an opportunity to be more represented on School Boards,” Greve said. “School Board elections are key! OKHPR supports SB 962, which would move school board elections. Many people are unaware of school board elections. More voters at the polls means more representation of our communities.”

While parents supported SB 962, the measure was opposed by a group of lobbyist organizations: the Oklahoma State School Boards Association (OSSBA), United Suburban Schools Association, Organization of Rural OK Schools, Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administration, and the Oklahoma Association for Career and Technical Education.

In a legislative alert, those entities claimed that voters “may be less informed about school board candidates if they appear on a general election ballot” despite higher turnout and increased voter awareness of elections.

Notably, the OSSBA remains affiliated with the National School Boards Association, which called for parental activists to be investigated and prosecuted by federal officials as perpetuators of “a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes.”

SB 962 previously passed the Oklahoma Senate 38-9 in 2021 and remained eligible to advance in the Oklahoma House of Representatives this year. While SB 962 passed the House Rules Committee on a 5-2 vote, it did not receive a hearing on the House floor.

The House’s failure to approve SB 962 occurred despite strong public support.

In 2017, a statewide poll of Oklahoma likely voters found state voters preferred moving school board elections to a November ballot by a margin of 53 percent to 35 percent. The poll showed Republican likely voters supported the change by a margin of 58 percent to 31 percent.

The House also failed to advance Senate Bill 634, which would require schools to obtain annual reauthorization from district employees for union-dues paycheck deductions on “a form prescribed by the Secretary of Education.”

The bill states the form must contain the following statement in 14-point boldface font: “I am aware that I have a First Amendment right, as recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court, to refrain from joining and paying dues to a professional organization or making political contributions. I further realize that membership and payment of dues or political contributions are voluntary and that I may not be discriminated against for my refusal to join or financially support a professional organization. I hereby authorize my employer to deduct dues and/or political contributions from my salary in the amounts specified in accordance with my professional organization’s bylaws. I understand that I may revoke this authorization at any time.”

The legislation was advanced to better align Oklahoma law with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2018 ruling in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, which held that “employees must choose to support the union before anything is taken from them.”

SB 634 passed the Oklahoma Senate in 2021 and also passed out of a House committee that year. The bill was eligible to be heard on the floor of the Oklahoma House of Representatives prior to an April 28 deadline but did not receive a vote.

The bill’s major opposition came from the Oklahoma Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union. During the 2021 legislative session, the union even tweeted a graphic declaring, “What is the [email protected]#$-ing point?”

Ivy Riggs, the associate executive director for the Oklahoma Education Association’s Center of Legislative and Political Organizing, recently praised lawmakers for killing SB 634 in a podcast hosted by the union.

“The biggest bill for us that did not happen is Senate Bill 634,” Riggs said.

She called the bill an effort to “squash” the union’s power.

In a transcribed interview posted on the OEA website earlier this year, Riggs complained that during the 2021 legislative session “the only contact legislators were receiving was coming from angry parents who were frustrated with what was happening in schools” and said the union was working to counter those parent voices.

In contrast, most Oklahomans supported the bill. A poll taken in 2019 found 62 percent of Oklahoma likely voters supported making “sure that there is evidence that unionized public employees have signed a consent form to pay the union.” The poll showed 72 percent of likely Republican voters supported such efforts, as did 58 percent of public-sector union households.

“We are disappointed that another year has gone by without the action being taken to protect teachers’ paychecks,” said Adam Maxey, deputy state director of Americans for Prosperity. “Our teachers work too hard for their money for it to be continually siphoned by leftist political operatives masquerading as educators.”

Why has the House struggled to advance measures that have cleared the Senate, and does House leadership plan to address the concerns raised by Oklahomans regarding those measures?

So far, they aren’t saying.

A request for comment was sent to House Speaker Charles McCall’s office regarding both SB 962 and SB 634. The speaker’s office declined the opportunity to respond.

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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