Ray Carter | April 29, 2024

Caving to teacher unions, Oklahoma House kills teacher-empowerment bill

Ray Carter

An effort to give teachers greater control over their interactions with unions—and reduce interruption of school days for non-school activities—has failed in the Oklahoma House of Representatives after lawmakers caved to union pressure.

Following the bill’s defeat, teacher-union officials openly gloated over their ability to pressure lawmakers, including many Republicans who campaigned as conservatives but voted with Democrats at the Capitol.

“I showed it to my kids as if it were an ESPN sports reel highlight video and made my whole family watch it,” Ellen Pogemiller, a political organizing specialist for the Oklahoma Education Association (OEA) and Democratic candidate in state House District 88 this year, exclaimed in an April 26 union podcast. “Like, ‘Get ready for this!!!’ It was so good.”

Ivy Riggs, associate executive director for the Oklahoma Education Association, called the bill’s defeat a “big win” for the union.

Senate Bill 1513, by state Sen. Julie Daniels and state Rep. Toni Hasenbeck, would have prohibited a school district from, “during school hours,” requiring or coercing teachers “to meet, communicate, listen to, or otherwise interact” with a teachers’ union or similar organization if the teacher does not want to do so.

Schools would also have been barred from distributing membership solicitations on behalf of any teacher union. And if one teacher union is granted access to a school’s facilities, the bill required that comparable access be provided to all competitor unions or associations.

In the OEA’s April 26 podcast, Riggs indicated the bill’s restrictions—which simply limited union access to individuals interested in joining—would have harmed the union.

“I think we know the goal was to keep teacher associations out of schools,” Riggs said.

But Hasenbeck, an Elgin Republican who worked as a teacher for 19 years, said the bill simply gives more power to teachers and increases their ability to focus on educating children during their workday.

“Teachers need to be more empowered and have less interruptions in their day,” Hasenbeck said.

One opponent admitted the bill’s critics provided little justification.

“I’ve heard from multiple schoolteachers in my district that are against this bill,” said state Rep. Cynthia Roe, R-Lindsay, “but they’ve not really given me a really good reason why they’re against this bill.”

Hasenbeck noted that teachers’ unions benefit from the current setup.

Democratic lawmakers had their numbers bolstered by many Republican legislators who fell in line with Democrats.

“The behemoth machine that runs off of education funding—and not just Oklahoma, but every state in the union—is incredibly dependent upon the status quo,” Hasenbeck said.

She noted that teacher unions often do little for educators when it really counts.

Hasenbeck recalled a situation where parents sued a teacher colleague. The teacher union’s legal counsel, who was supposed to defend the teacher, was also the child of the school superintendent.

“The decision was made by the organization that was providing the representation and the administration of the school to settle and not fight for the teacher,” Hasenbeck said. “That happened very early in my (teaching) career.”

The incident rattled Hasenbeck as she saw what happened to her colleague and how the union officials who were supposed to defend the teacher didn’t, despite collecting revenue from her colleague.

“She didn’t get a fair shake in that situation,” Hasenbeck said.

SB 1513 previously passed the Oklahoma Senate, but in the House it failed as lawmakers quickly caved to union pressure. The bill was defeated on a 14-74 vote.

Two lawmakers who voted for the bill in House committee flip-flopped and voted against it on the House floor: state Reps. Tammy West, R-Oklahoma City, and Mike Osburn, R-Edmond.

Democratic lawmakers, who generally receive strong support from teachers’ unions, all opposed the bill (aside from those who were absent), but had their numbers bolstered by many Republican legislators who fell in line with Democrats.

Bill’s defeat benefits unions that have pushed radical policies in Oklahoma schools

The defeat of SB 1513 benefits teacher unions that have promoted many policies opposed by much of the Oklahoma public.

In December 2020, the then-president of OEA declared it “dangerous” to hold in-person school in all but three Oklahoma counties because of COVID. That declaration was made nine months after COVID first hit the U.S. and despite the fact that few cases of in-person spread of the virus were reported by Oklahoma school districts that had already reopened.

At that time, a union survey showed a majority of OEA members opposed reopening school. A majority of union-poll respondents also reported they had experienced no financial stress because of the pandemic, unlike the families who would have been forced to forgo work or hire a babysitter to watch children forced to stay at home by continued school closures.

The OEA also advocated for state testing to be suspended in 2021, which would have prevented measurement of student learning loss caused by prolonged school closures.

In 2021, the OEA, through its affiliate Oklahoma Aspiring Educators Association, hosted a Racial and Social Justice Symposium where Oklahoma’s next generation of teachers were told that police or school security “have always been brought into schools as a way to oppress, suppress, beat and harm our black, indigenous and students of color.” Attendees were also told the fact that many teachers are white women is a problem that has “embedded this deep layer of implicit bias” in public schools, and that teachers who don’t embrace “antiracism” need to “get out of the profession” because otherwise they are continuing to “perpetuate white supremacy and inflict harm on students of color.” Concerns about COVID-related learning loss were dismissed as “completely centered in whiteness” with one presenter declaring that it is “just white learning that’s been lost.”

In January 2022, a top official with the OEA decried growing parent involvement in Oklahoma schools and vowed the union would counter those voices at the Oklahoma Capitol.

The OEA’s website has also encouraged teachers to use numerous controversial materials in their classrooms, including “How to be an Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi, an author who has expressly written that “racial discrimination is not inherently racist” and that the “only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination.”

The OEA website has also touted material that advocates for the “defund the police” movement, declaring that “nearly every Black American has experienced some form of harassment by the police,” and material declaring voter ID laws are “efforts to inhibit Black Americans from voting today.”

The OEA website has also touted the Zinn Education Project, which has urged teachers to sign a pledge to ignore state laws that restrict or prohibit the use of Critical Race Theory in the classroom.

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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