Fallin signs repeal of “trial de novo,” discusses issues with reporters

 With legislative supporters of education reform and key representatives from supportive public schools looking on, Governor Mary Fallin Tuesday signed into law House Bill 1380. The bill sponsored by state Rep. Corey Holland of Marlow and state Sen. John Ford of Bartlesville repeals the system of “trial de novo” for dismissed public school teachers, and is another in a series of substantive reforms to gain support since Republicans took control of Oklahoma state government as a result of the November 2010 election.

Superintendent Janet Barresi expressed appreciation for the work of Sen. Ford and Rep. Holland. She described the bill as “another tool in the toolbelt” for educators seeking to improve classroom performance.

Shelley Shelby of the Oklahoma State School Board Association said passage of the bill would allow public school districts to “treat teachers like any other professional” and empower boards and superintendents to replace poor teachers. She said the current process “is expensive, time-consuming and counter-productive.”

Tony Christian, superintendent in Purcell Schools, described to reporters a situation “two years ago, where we wanted to, needed to and had to replace a teacher.” After being told the process would take “a month or so,” a process began that lasted several months and, he said, “cost the district $80,000 to fire this individual.” Criminal proceedings against the former teacher were only completed recently, after two years had elapsed, Christian said.

Christian said the new law will allow boards of education and superintendents to be “comfortable and confident to make a replacement” when needed.

Senator Ford restated the source of his willingness to work on education reforms like this one: “Last year, more than 50% of new inmates in Oklahoma prisons were high school dropouts.” He believes passage of H.B. 1380 “will allow us to put qualify teachers in more classrooms pre-K to 12, quality teachers.”

Rep. Holland commented, “I’m not blind to the fact that others have worked hard on this legislation for many years.” He expressed gratitude the new law will help public schools “get more students on level” with their age in terms of educational attainment.

Joining the governor and other speakers for the bill signing were state Reps. Jason Nelson of Oklahoma City, Lisa Billy of Lindsay, Lee Denney of Cushing and Ann Coody of Lawton; as well as Education Secretary Phyllis Hudecki and Mat Robinson of the State Chamber.

Fallin had, in her State of the State address, made a priority of elimination of the mandate allowing dismissed teachers direct access to district courts in challenging firings. She encouraged legislators to keep up the pace and send her several more measures still in the pipeline.

In a prepared statement, the governor said, “This is an important measure that brings more accountability to our school system. The vast majority of school teachers are quality educators who deserve our appreciation and our thanks.

“In the limited instances where a teacher is not performing at a sufficiently high level, however, school boards must be given the power to seek a replacement without the fear of an expensive and lengthy legal battle. We owe it to our children and to taxpayers not to throw up legal blockades that keep ineffective teachers on staff.”

Fallin continued, “Education studies have shown that a key factor in student performance is the quality and effectiveness of our teachers. Eliminating ‘trial de novo’ will help to ensure that every teacher in the classroom belongs there.

 “This is a great first step as we continue to look at ways to work with parents, teachers and administrators to hold our schools accountable, raise the bar in education and increase student performance. I am extremely hopeful that our lawmakers will continue to send bills to my desk that achieve those results, including legislation to end social promotion and to establish an ‘A-F’ grading system for our schools.”

 Cheering the bill signing was a representative of Oklahoma’s leading free market think tank. Brandon Dutcher, vice president at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, commented, “This is an incredibly important reform, and it’s been a long time coming. Hats off to the Legislature and to Gov. Fallin for recognizing that they owe it to students — and to taxpayers—to make it easier to get rid of bad teachers. This is another important education reform in a legislative session that is shaping up to produce quite a few of them.”

 In a brief exchange with CapitolBeatOK after the signing ceremony, the chief executive said the visit, two weeks ago, of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush was “very ratifying and affirming of what we are trying to do in education reform. It was encouraging to our legislative members, providing examples of ideas similar to many of the proposals made here that have passed and had a huge impact in his state.”

 The governor spoke briefly with Capitol reporters, and was asked about the decision to allow to lapse executive orders creating advisory panels representing ethnic groups in Oklahoma. Latino and Islamic leaders have expressed disappointment over the end of committees that included prominent leaders of those communities.

 Governor Fallin told reporters that she was focusing her energy on economic issues and priorities and commented that taking the time to focus on numerous executive orders and decisions from her predecessor was “not within the realm of economic issues and other concerns” she is primarily focused on. She said her personnel decisions will continue to reflect respect for the state’s diversity.

 Fallin said she and her staff are reviewing executive orders “to see which to retain, which to review and which to let lapse.” When one reporters asked if there was a chance the ethic panels might be resurrected, Gov. Fallin responded, “I’m not prepared to say that right now, one way or the other.”

 Concerning the state budget, Fallin said there was agreement to “get it done” sooner rather than later in the legislation session. She provided no details on any gaps that may remain between her and legislative leaders concerning the amount of budget cuts that might be required, but said the chairmen of the Appropriations and Budget committees in both House and Senate were meeting regularly and that she was aware of issues under discussion.