School teachers in Oklahoma could be fired for a host of new reasons under a bill that cleared a House committee on Tuesday, raising concerns of opponents who contend educators are on the front line of a Republican assault on public education.
Meanwhile, Republican Gov. Mary Fallin signed into law a bill that eliminates a teacher's ability to appeal their dismissal to a district judge, a procedure known as trial de novo.
"Education studies have shown that a key factor in student performance is the quality and effectiveness of the teacher in the classroom," Fallin said Tuesday during a bill signing ceremony. "And currently, it is nearly impossible to dismiss an ineffective teacher due to the lengthy and expensive appeals process known as trial de novo."
While Fallin acknowledged it is a "rare circumstance" that a school district's decision is appealed in court, she added: "We owe it to our children and to taxpayers not to throw up legal blockades that keep ineffective teachers on staff."
But some opponents of both measures contend public education is coming under fire from Oklahoma Republicans, who now control the House, Senate and governor's office for the first time in state history.
Rep. Ed Cannaday, a longtime teacher, administrator and school board member, opposed both the elimination of trial de novo and the separate bill that expands the list of reasons for which a teacher can be fired.
"It appears as if teachers are the target," said Cannaday, D-Porum. "Either that or weak administrators are being protected."
The bill that passed the House Education Committee on an 11-6 vote adds dishonesty, insubordination and negligence to the list of offenses for which a teacher can be fired. It also says teachers can be dismissed for failing to comply with school district policies or with standards of conduct adopted by the state Board of Education.
"The concerns that we have is that the language seems to be very broad," said Joel Robison, a lobbyist for the Oklahoma Education Association. "For some reason, teachers have been identified as the bad guy in this public school debate, and we don't believe that's the case.
"We believe teachers, by and large, go to work every day and work as hard as they can to increase student learning in the classroom. We're not sure why our members have been singled out for this attention, but it needs to stop and we need to start having some serious discussions about how to improve student learning, not attacks on one group or another."
Rep. Lee Denney, who sponsored the Senate bill to expand the list of fireable offenses, said the goal is to help those hardworking teachers by giving districts more power to eliminate ineffective teachers.
"I want the best teachers in the classroom, and that's my goal with this bill," said Denney, R-Cushing. "I think everyone in a school district knows the ineffective teachers and wants them gone too. We just want the best product in our classroom for our kids. That's what we're working toward, and it's a bumpy road."