Against doctor’s recommendations, Rep. Katie Henke went to Oklahoma City on May 21, 2014.
Her proposal to reform the way the state enforced its requirement that third-graders pass a reading test in order to become fourth-graders was hanging by a thread, and she had to save it.
First passed in 1997, the state’s Reading Sufficiency Act was designed to make sure students were reading on grade level by third grade. In a program enforced by then-Superintendent Janet Barresi, students who didn’t fall into a handful of exceptions were ordered held back if they didn’t pass the test.
But parents, teachers and experts protested that holding back children regardless of circumstances made no sense. What if the child missed the cut score by one point and was sick on the day of the test? What if the high-stakes nature of the test resulted in a child who had third-grade proficiency not being able to demonstrate it on test day? What if the child was reading at third-grade level in second grade, but somehow didn’t get the right grade the next year?
Henke’s solution, in House Bill 2625, was to put together a committee of parents, teachers and reading experts to consider each child who fell short of a passing grade individually. The committee would look at all the child’s circumstances. If the situation called for it, the committee could, by unanimous vote, grant probationary promotion into fourth grade. If probationary promotion was granted, the committee would continue tracking the child’s progress until he was reading at the appropriate grade level.
The bill made sense, and Henke built a coalition to get it passed. It went through the House 89-6. The Senate passed it 43-1. And then ... the governor vetoed it.
In her veto message, Gov. Mary Fallin sided with Barresi’s arguments that there were enough safeguards in the existing third-grade reading law, and Henke’s measure sounded like “social promotion” to her, political hot-button language.
Meanwhile, Henke was dealing with a delicate pregnancy. Her doctor told her to stay in Tulsa. Fellow legislators told her to let the bill go. Better luck next year.
But the day after the governor’s veto, Henke was on the floor of the House, asking her fellow lawmakers for an override.
If you watch the video of what happened that day, you’ll see Henke pacing up and down the aisles as the slow legislative processes grind away. After opponents of the override started to draw things out, she cut short questioning and used a parliamentary maneuver to prevent debate. The House went straight to a vote and ... the governor’s veto was overridden on 79-17 vote.
There were cheers in the House chamber when the final vote was announced. Meanwhile, Henke says she was having contractions.
It was the most dramatic day of the legislative session and a test of Henke’s resolve to solve problems for her constituents.
Let’s cut to the end of the story: The Senate voted to override the veto later that day. Henke’s bill became law. The next year, another bill added more nuance to how the reading mandate works and kept the Henke committees in place.
The baby, Frank “Fletcher” Henke V, was born a little early, but healthy. He’s 2 years old now. His mom is running for re-election.
The fight over HB 2625 was two years ago, but voters should remember it on election day. They should also remember who voted to override and who voted to sustain.
Two House members with Tulsa County districts who voted with Henke that day were Rep. Jadine Nollan, R-Sand Springs, and Rep. Terry O’Donnell, R-Catoosa. Both are up for re-election in November. One local legislators — Rep. Mike Ritze, R-Broken Arrow — voted against the override. He is up for re-election too.
In the Senate vote, three local legislators on the Nov. 8 ballot voted for the override: Sen. Nathan Dahm, R-Broken Arrow; Sen. Dan Newberry, R-Tulsa, and Sen. Gary Stanislawski, R-Tulsa. Sen. Ben Brown, R-Broken Arrow, was one of two senators who voted against the override, but his seat isn’t on the ballot until 2018, when he will be term limited.