By Conrad Dudderar
An elected Yukon school leader voiced his opposition this week to Gov. Kevin Stitt’s push for a $130 million “school voucher” program.
YPS Board of Education President Leonard Wells disagrees with the governor’s stance on education savings accounts, which would send state education funds to parents who want to enroll their child in private schools.
“It’s just going to create a waste of funds, setting up a bureaucracy to manage vouchers,” Wells said during the Feb. 7th Yukon Legislative Breakfast. “It’s wasting money that could go into education.”
This was the first week of the new legislative session at the Oklahoma State Capitol.
The YPS board chief called on state legislators to ensure that public and private schools are on an even playing field.
“My concern is, vouchers will be able to be used for schools that do not meet the state requirements,” Wells said. “Right now, (public schools) have a lot of requirements that we have to meet and private schools don’t have to meet those.
“They don’t have to have certified teachers. They don’t have to provide transportation. There’s a lot of rules they don’t have to follow, and it costs money to follow those rules. My concern is that we’re going to throw money away from public education if vouchers happen and I don’t think it will accomplish what they’re expecting it to.”
Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters “seems to think we need to do away with all federal funds for schools, which would be a disaster,” Wells added.
The state education secretary and governor are “tied very closely together on their vision” of how education should move forward, according to State Rep. Rhonda Baker (R-Yukon).
“We can do school choice, and we can provide what’s best for a child without losing money to management organizations that truly are there to take it and make a profit off it,” Rep. Baker said during Tuesday morning’s Yukon breakfast.
“I just can’t stress enough how important it is for people to get past the talking point. … There is a real issue we have at hand, and there’s corruption right in the middle of it all.”
In his Feb. 6th “State of the State” address to a joint session of the State Senate and House of Representatives, Stitt proposed $100 million for an Innovation School Fund to help start more specialized schools.
Many state legislators realize that school choice is important, Baker noted.
“The problem lies with how we get there,” said Baker, who represents House District 60. “That’s where there has been so much battle behind the scenes.
“There is such a concern about public money going to private schools. … there’s just not that transparency. Auditor (Cindy) Byrd has been outspoken on this issue as well. She is the one who basically uncovered a lot of the mismanagement at Epic (Charter School).”
Baker, a former public-school teacher, chairs the House Common Education Committee. She is serving her fourth, two-year term in the 101-member Oklahoma House of Representatives.
“We want to do what’s best for children,” the Yukon lawmaker said. “We want every child to succeed. We want them to be in the school they need to be in.
“But the argument ultimately comes down, financially, to, “How do we do that? How do we have transparency?’”
Rep. Baker believes strongly in a bill to change the state’s education funding formula, which was enacted in the 1980s.
The proposal is to raise the “weights” used to identify and assign more funding to students with greater educational needed.
“That is something a lot of school districts around the state have asked for, just because their student bodies of changed so much,” Baker said.
Oklahoma’s House District 60 representative was among three state legislators who spoke during the Yukon Chamber of Commerce’s February Legislative Breakfast, hosted by Archery Traditions.
GO JUMP IN A LAKE
New District 18 State Sen. Jack Stewart (R-Yukon) had an eye-opening 2-1/2 months preparing for the start of the new legislative session.
A former three-term Canadian County commissioner, Stewart took office in Nov. 23 after being elected to a four-year term in the 48-member State Senate.
Having attended many caucus meetings, the freshman senator has learned everything from how to write legislation to the formalities used when presenting a bill on the Senate floor.
“There’s been a lot of training; they do prepare you,” Stewart told constituents at the Feb. 7th Yukon Legislative Breakfast. “They’re teaching you to swim by throwing you out in the middle of the lake.
“It is honestly like that. … they expect things from you immediately.”
Sen. Stewart was appointed to four state Senate committees – General Government (vice chair), Judiciary, Veterans Affairs, and Finance.
The first-term legislator listed legislation he will work on during this session.
A state trooper asked him to introduce a crime scene evidence bill designed to keep traffic accident photos from being posted on social media in pending law enforcement investigations.
STITT ‘VERY EMBOLDENED’
In the Feb. 6th session opening, Oklahoma legislators heard Gov. Stitt’s budget proposal.
“There was a lot of detail in it; a lot I really liked,” said District 41 State Rep. Denise Crosswhite Hader (R-Piedmont). “We have a large surplus of funds, which are taxpayer funds. … As much as we can be able to return it, I want to.”
Gov. Stitt renewed his call for legislators to repeal Oklahoma’s sales tax on groceries and proposed reducing the individual income tax by 0.76%.
The governor shared his legislative priorities in his State of the State address, which included controversial anti-transgender legislation. With Stitt now a “lame duck,” Crosswhite Hader believes he is “very emboldened.”
“I was appreciative that he asked for a bill to not mutilate children with gender surgeries,” she added. “I think you will see that.”
First-year District 3 Canadian County Commissioner Tracey Rider told the Yukon Legislative Breakfast audience that commissioners are “getting close to being able to make decisions” on distribution of the county’s remaining American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) stimulus funds.
Six municipalities and one rural water district have submitted requests totaling $13.25 million to fund water infrastructure upgrades.
County commissioners already have spent $6 million of its $28 million federal ARPA award to buy property for a new health department site and earmarked $10 million toward construction of a new courthouse complex.