Educators interested in regalia bill, classroom safety

Questions ranging from a bill that would allow Native America students to wear tribal regalia at graduation ceremonies, to safety measures for teachers were posed to Lawton area legislators Thursday during an education forum.

Four legislators appeared over the course of one and one-half hours as they tried to match late running legislative sessions and previously scheduled activities with a forum for local educators coordinated by the Lawton Professional Oklahoma Educators.

Three of the four legislators had direct ties to Lawton Public Schools (Rep. Daniel Pae noted he was a Lawton High graduate), while the fourth legislator, Rep. Toni Hasenbeck, was a classroom teacher and administrator in Elgin before becoming one of the Oklahoma educators who won election in 2018. Rep. Trey Caldwell said his mother also had been a classroom teacher and administrator.

Sen. John Michael Montgomery, whose wife is a teacher with Lawton Public Schools, said education was one of the reasons he ran for public office, noting state officials were “shooting ourselves in the foot, for the way we handled education issues.”

Rep. Chris Caldwell, responding to a question about potentially impactful bills that haven’t been heard on the floor yet, pointed to a bill that would allow high school students of Native American descent to wear tribal regalia with their graduation attire.

Caldwell and Professional Oklahoma Educators Executive Director Ginger Tinney said discussions on that bill started locally at last year’s POE educational forum with local educator Cornel Pewewardy, who already had convinced the Lawton Board of Education to set that ability into the district’s student policy.

Pewewardy, who attended Thursday’s forum, asked that legislators now consider education plans adopted by other states, focusing on tribal history and culture. An educator with Lawton High School (which has long allowed its graduating seniors to wear tribal regalia) said that school already has plans for a Native American history class in the next school year.

Caldwell said the issue is important.

“We got an idea and we worked on it all year,” he said, predicting the proposal won’t have problems passing.

Caldwell said he is opposed to another bill winding its way through the legislative process: Senate Bill 407, which would allow larger tax credits for donations to private schools. Caldwell said while the proposal was defeated last year, supporters this year have six lobbyists working to gain passage.

“It’s coming with a vengeance,” he said, calling the bill “a back door voucher, in my opinion.”

Montgomery, noting another yet-to-be-discussed bill, cited Pae’s Purple Star Schools bill that would give special designation to schools like Lawton Public Schools that dedicate resources to military students. Montgomery said Texas passed a similar program, and he expects the Oklahoma Legislature to approve the idea, then work toward funding.

Montgomery also pointed to a House bill that is addressing the issue of alternative certification. Calling existing requirements “overly burdensome,” Montgomery said the change will help students and those who want to teach.

“If we have people who can do the job, they need to be in the classroom,” he said.

Legislators also cited the importance of safety measures for teachers assaulted by students.

Hasenbeck, who spent 19 years in the classroom, said she has first-hand experience with protecting teachers from students. Admitting that she “got my butt kicked by a second grader,” Hasenbeck said she also has seen adults in schools over-react when dealing with students with problems.

“We need to train people to work with them (troubled students),” she said, adding that schools also must acknowledge there are students who can’t function in a normal classroom.

Legislators also talked about efforts to move the state’s school districts away from four-day school weeks, regulations being discussed again.

Caldwell said legislators were “hoodwinked” last year into approving the legislation. He said he is among those who have reconsidered their stance because the Department of Education “lied” when it said it would come back with rules to govern the practice. Caldwell said while the department said those rules could be voted down by the Legislature with no effect, it now says if the rules are rejected, there will be no waivers given to districts.

“It’s flex scheduling,” he said of the practice of shorter school weeks, adding local districts need the flexibility to make that decision because what works in Tulsa may not work in Lawton, and what works in Lawton may not work in smaller schools. “We need to maintain that local control.”