The first month of session is over.  This week was the committee deadline.  We started in House and Senate committee with just over 2,800 bills assigned to House and Senate committees and only 1,000 advanced in the process.

            I’m disappointed but not surprised that only seven of my 29 bills made it out of committee. Fifteen of my bills are education-related.  Being a 39-year veteran teacher, you’d think the Education Chairman would want to hear my bills. I’ve obviously struck a nerve as after filing bills to increase transparency and accountability within our virtual charter schools the last couple of years, I was removed from the Senate Education Committee and now my bills aren’t even being heard. 

            There are ten Senators with education backgrounds (teachers or administrators) but only five are on the 15-member Senate Education Committee.  The Chair and Vice Chair are retired military men with no experience in the classroom or education system. However, the Chair has pushed virtual charters for years.

            If you haven’t seen it on the news, Epic Charter Schools is now under both state and federal investigation for the very things I’ve been filing bills to address in recent years. Perhaps, committees should be made up of people who have expertise in those particular professions.  The legislative games are frustrating.

            Again, I’m not against virtual charter schools.  Not all students can learn in a traditional classroom setting.  I have three degrees in education and four decades of experience, I understand the various learning needs of our youth.

But if these four schools are going to receive state funding then changes need to be made to require them to report how those funds are utilized just as other schools do.  Being virtual, there needs to be a better tracking system to verify to taxpayers that students are completing daily work and completing state requirements for coursework and testing.  They’re funded based on ADM just like traditional schools yet there is no evidence of the students’ daily work or attendance. There currently is no information regarding how many students are enrolled, dropped out, completed whatever required coursework/tests, graduation rates, etc.  The schools are revolving doors because it’s so easy for parents to sign up and drop out.   

One of Epic’s owners admitted in an interim study this fall that they’ve given out thousands of laptops to students yet didn’t keep track of who had one or retrieved the state property from kids who dropped out of the virtual charter school.  Over 6,000 computers were listed by Epic as "unrecoverable".  Traditional public schools are required to track all books, computers and other school property. Those are our tax dollars.

I want financial equity between traditional and virtual charter schools. I want these state-funded virtual schools to be just as transparent and accountable as brick and mortar schools are required to be. The Tulsa World has published numerous stories in the last two months asking these same questions and wanting the same changes. Read the stories. They have more space and are able to go into more detail than I am in my weekly articles. Hard to explain such complicated issues in less than 700 words.

            In other news, session is moving quickly.  On Wednesday, the governor signed his first bill, HB 2597. Oklahoma is the 16th state to enact constitutional carry, which permits law-abiding Oklahomans (age 21 or older) or veterans, active duty and reserve military (age 18 or older) to carry a firearm without a permit.  Felons, those with domestic violence convictions or who have been adjudicated as having a mental illness are prohibited from carrying. Private property owners are still allowed to prohibit carrying on their property.  

            The Senate Republican Agenda is moving along. Three of the four items (budget transparency, government accountability, education investment and reform) were approved in committee and are awaiting consideration by the full Senate. The fourth agenda item deals with criminal justice reform and increasing funding for treatment and diversion programs to help nonviolent offenders get the help they need to return to their families and become independent, productive citizens.  This will be addressed in budget negotiations.

            Check the Senate website (www.oksenate.gov) for updates on these and other bills moving through the legislative process.

            To contact me at the Capitol, please write to Senator Ron Sharp, State Capitol, 2300 N. Lincoln Blvd. Room 412, Oklahoma City, OK, 73105, email me at sharp@oksenate.gov, or call (405) 521-5539.