BY DAVID PERRYMAN
The English colloquialisms “turn out to be a pig in a poke” or “buy a pig in a poke” mean that something is sold or bought without the buyer knowing its true nature or value. The phrase can also be applied to accepting an idea or plan without a full understanding of its basis.
In the middle ages, con artists would often put a dog or a cat in a bag, commonly called a “poke” and sell it as a suckling pig to an unsuspecting customer. Last week, legislators were placed in a similar situation regarding SB 441.
As you will recall, SB 441 originated in the Senate when legislators who had imposed the nation’s deepest cuts on Oklahoma’s public schools became embarrassed after the national news carried stories about Oklahoma’s four-day school weeks and the lack of emphasis that Oklahoma places on public education.
The bill added no funding to public schools but was a dictatorially arrogant legislative directive that the nearly 100 financially strapped state school districts that had resourcefully found a way to educate students despite draconian cuts return to a five-day per week calendar.
Then things got messy. Apparently fearing that legislators on the Common Education Committee would not vote in favor of a stand-alone directive for five day school weeks, the House speaker sent the bill to the Rules Committee, twice. The Rules Committee, fearing that the full House would not vote in favor of the mandate, sweetened the pot by adding a section granting every teacher in the state a $1,200 per year raise.
What the speaker and the Rules Committee forgot was that the drafters of Oklahoma’s Constitution foresaw the danger of passing a bad bill by attaching a good bill to it. In Oklahoma that is referred to as violating the constitutional single subject rule and reminds me of the family whose baby was so ugly that they had to tie a piece of bacon around his neck to get the dog to play with him.
Thus, during an evening session last week SB 441 came to the house floor. Representatives who didn’t want to vote for the unfunded mandate were enticed to hold their noses and vote for a teacher pay raise. Likewise, legislators who did not want to take away from local school boards the ability to tailor class hours, days and school calendars to the best benefit of the local school district were assured by their leadership that rural communities would be forgiving if teacher pay in Oklahoma was increased.
Proponents of SB 441 also claimed that certain schools might be able to avoid the five-day week mandate if they could meet the guidelines of the Oklahoma Department of Education. Frustratingly, the rules and guidelines of the Oklahoma Department of Education have not yet been written. Rural schools across the state were skeptical about the unwritten standards. After all, the future, unknown rules would be written by the same State Department of Education that has been trying to close and consolidate successful and economical rural school districts for years.
As the bill was debated and examined on the floor, the tension rose. Many legislators expressed concern about their conflicted positions. Finally as the vote was about to be taken, a motion was made to divide the question and to allow the five-day school week mandate to be voted on separately from the teacher pay raise.
So much for the legislators who had claimed to be conflicted. Scores of legislators voted in the best interest of the House speaker and against the best interest of their local school districts.
When the dust cleared, the Senate bill passed the house with both subjects intact. The House Amendments have now been returned to the Senate.
Although the Senate president pro tem has indicated that the House Amendments may violate the Oklahoma Constitution, Oklahoma’s rural school districts are hanging their hats on a hope and a prayer that, if the governor ultimately signs the SB 441, the “pig in a poke” rules drafted on some future date by a hostile State Department of Education will legitimately allow them to justify that until the Legislature properly funds public education, four-day school weeks are a resourceful, frugal and effective way to educate students in financially strapped districts.
– Chickasha Democrat David Perryman represents District 56 in the Oklahoma House and serves as minority floor leader