Lawmakers mum as mother struggles to find open-transfer spot

March 8, 2022

Ray Carter

Reforms to Oklahoma’s open-transfer law were touted as a way to help families escape geographically assigned public schools that are not working for their children. But in practice, parents are finding they must jump through numerous hoops to find any school that will take their children—if they can find any open spots at all.

Even as parents are voicing frustration with the system, education leaders in the Oklahoma House of Representatives have responded with silence.

Oklahoma’s new open-transfer law, approved by legislators in 2021, allows for transfer of students between public school districts throughout the year. Previously, such transfers were mostly limited to a short period of time.

Under the new law, “sending” districts are no longer able to block a transfer, but local districts get to set their capacity limits and receiving districts can deny a transfer for several reasons. School districts are required to publicly post capacity numbers.

Many districts are claiming they have few or no open-seat spots available, even if enrollment has declined, leading parents to question whether school districts are gaming the system.

One Oklahoma City mother, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to concerns about future school retaliation against her child, noted that similar school districts are reporting dramatically different capacity numbers.

“I don’t understand why we’re having such a hard time,” she said.

The mother noted her child has good grades, good attendance, and no discipline problems.

Like many parents in the Oklahoma City district, the mother found her child’s assigned school was not a good fit, not just academically but also when it came to issues like personal safety. She said the Oklahoma City school that her daughter was assigned is known for “violence, drugs, guns,” and said she would not put her child “in environments like that.”

She reached out to another district—Moore—and was told they had no room for her child. Then the mother asked if a waiting list was available.

“Kids come and go, they move,” the mother noted. “They said they don’t do waiting lists. They said it’s first come, first serve, and July 1 is the first day of availability. School starts in August, so that doesn’t give us a lot of time if there’s no room.”

Enrollment figures reported to the Oklahoma State Department of Education show that the Moore district has 446 fewer students this year than in the 2019-2020 school year, but the district claims it has only 107 spots available for open-transfer students.

The mother was eventually able to locate a school with available seats for open-transfer students, but must drive 40 miles, one way, to take her child to that school.

Although touted as a way to escape bad public schools, many of the seats available for open-transfer students are in the districts that incentivized creation of the transfer law. A review of public data, conducted by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, shows a significant share of the slots available through open transfer are in the Oklahoma City and Tulsa school districts, which are considered among the worst schools in the state.

The Oklahoma City district reports having 3,284 slots available for open-transfer students. That represents 65 percent of all open-transfer spots available in all schools in Oklahoma County.

The 1,433 slots available at Tulsa Public Schools represent more than half of all open-transfer opportunities in all school districts in Tulsa County.

Members of the Oklahoma Senate have responded by advancing legislation that would expand other school-choice opportunities, including Senate Bill 1647, which would create the Oklahoma Empowerment Account (OEA) Program. Under the proposed program, most students eligible to enroll in a public school would be eligible for an OEA, which would allow parents to use part of their child’s per-pupil allotment to pay for a range of education services, including private-school tuition.

Senate leaders have also discussed concerns about the open-transfer law. Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, has questioned whether some districts are keeping their caps “artificially low to keep people from transferring in.” State Sen. Adam Pugh, an Edmond Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee and authored the open-transfer law, has complained that when the transfer bill was considered last year officials from many districts reached out to him to discuss “how can we keep kids out?”

“It was never about how can we let kids in,” Pugh noted during a recent committee hearing.

That’s in stark contrast to the response from House leaders.

State Rep. Rhonda Baker, a Yukon Republican who chairs the House Common Education Committee, recently told, “We’re anxious to see some data on how open transfer has been working.” She made that comment before OCPA released its data on open-transfer opportunities.

The Yukon school district that Baker represents is among those claiming to have almost no available spots for open-transfer students. Yukon Public Schools claims it has just nine open seats in all grades—four seats in pre-K at one school site and five seats in sixth grade at another site.

OCPA emailed and left messages by phone with both Baker and state Rep. Mark McBride, a Moore Republican who chairs the House Appropriations and Budget Subcommittee on Education, asking for comment on the lack of open-transfer spots for students in many districts.

More than a week later, neither lawmaker has responded.