New academic standards, Rainy Day funds for schools

Legislators have approved new academic standards to offset the rejection of Common Core and Republicans have led an effort to pump more funding into education in the light of a $1.5-billion projected budget shortfall.

Republicans in the House and Senate approved the Oklahoma Academic Standards (OAS) for English Language Arts and Mathematics and promised they will be implemented quickly.

Critics say the bills are really a back door to Common Core Standards, the same standards that were defeated through grassroots efforts in the Legislature.

Pastor Paul Blair wrote in an e-mail while the state board asked English expert Dr. Sandra Stotsky from Massachusetts and Mathematics expert Dr. Lawrence Gray from Minnesota for help in developing non-Common Core standards, their advice was not taken. Currently, neither expert approves of the proposed standards as written.

Critics say the new standards simply prepare students to take the ACT test, which is exactly aligned with Common Core.

State School Superintendent Joy Hofmeister praised both amended resolutions and their authors.

“The additional language to both resolutions addresses our concerns and gives the State Board of Education the flexibility to make modifications to the standards,” said Hofmeister.

“State and district officials who have been calling for adoption of these superior standards can soon begin crafting curriculum frameworks that will enable educators to bring the standards to life for students in Oklahoma classrooms.”

House Speaker Jeff Hickman  co-authored HJR 1070 and amended it after Hofmeister requested that portions be clarified.

“Over the past two years, significant time and hard work has gone into a process to establish new academic standards for our Oklahoma schools,” said Hickman “This process was the result of legislative action two years ago which for the first time in state history brought together common education, CareerTech and higher education to develop new academic standards that are superior to Common Core and PASS. Now, we finalized language for a resolution with the input of the State Superintendent and the State Board of Education legal counsel to approve the standards with instructions. This approach allowed the board to quickly make any clarifications and revisions with the input of the same reviewers the Department of Education chose to help produce these standards to make sure they can be implemented for the next school year.”

Sen. John Ford, chair of the Senate Education Committee, authored one of the amendments to SJR 75.

The OAS for English Language Arts and Mathematics were created through a process that included input from hundreds of Oklahoma teachers, education professionals, parents and business and community leaders.

New academic standards for English language arts (ELA) and mathematics will take effect beginning in the 2016-2017 school year for Oklahoma’s pre-K-12 public education system.

ELA and math standards implementation can begin immediately for Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE) staff and school districts across the state.

“These new standards are rigorous, user-friendly and, most importantly, created by Oklahomans for Oklahomans to address the particular needs of our state,” she said.

The lawmakers directed the State Board of Education to adopt a new set of standards for use in schools beginning in the 2016-2017 school year.

Governor Mary Fallin signed two measures that will tap nearly $80 million from the state’s Rainy Day Fund.

Senate Bill (SB) 1572 appropriates $51 million to the State Department of Education to provide money for public schools and to pay the full cost of health insurance for teachers, administrators and support personnel. SB 1571 sends $27.5 million to the Department of Corrections (DOC) to pay prison staff and essential services for inmate population increases.

“I appreciate members of the House of Representatives and the Senate for their quick approval of these two bills, and for the cooperation of their leaders in agreeing that this is the most responsible option,” said Fallin.  “The appropriation of these supplemental funds will pay for vital state services for education and corrections between now and when this fiscal year ends on June 30.

“Now, legislators need to focus on the 2017 fiscal year, which starts July 1, and take action to put recurring revenues on the table this session, like I proposed in my executive budget. Failure to do so will result in the same problem next year. The Rainy Day Fund option is a one-time fix, but we need to do the tough work to pass a budget this session that contains true, meaningful fiscal reforms the state needs.”

Fallin has vaguely proposed ending sales tax exemptions – essentially a tax increase – as one of her ideas to raise revenues.

Hickman said it has been challenging for legislators this year to deal with a revenue shortfall for the 2017 fiscal year budget as well as finding emergency funds for public schools and prisons.

“Our prisons are in a crisis at more than 120 percent of capacity and only around 65 percent staffed on any given day, so this emergency funding is critical,” he said. “The supplemental funding for common education is necessary to ensure schools have the resources to complete the school year then have time to plan ahead for next year.”

Senate President Pro Tempore Brian Bingman said money was deposited in the Rainy Day Fund to help Oklahoma deal with revenue shortfalls.

“The state budget and economy are suffering because of the downturn in oil and gas,” he said. “Unfortunately, things aren’t likely to improve soon. Using a portion of the Rainy Day funds this year lessens the impact of budget cuts on students and state prisons, while ensuring Oklahoma has money in reserve to help with the financial challenges that undoubtedly lie ahead.”

DOC Interim Director Joe Allbaugh said he appreciates the Legislature and the governor providing emergency funding for his agency.

“This money will go a long way to preventing drastic cuts that would ultimately jeopardize the safety, security and operations of our prison facilities and the citizens of the state,” he said. “I recognize the difficulty the governor and members of the legislature face when making tough decisions this year. I appreciate their efforts for making public safety a top priority. I look forward to continuing to work together.”

The $78.5 million withdrawn from the Rainy Day Fund, as authorized by SB 1571 and SB 1572, will leave a balance of about $306.5 million.