Education, Law & Principles
Lawmakers vote to streamline charter-school process
February 21, 2023
State senators have voted to streamline the process for public charter schools to obtain sponsors, potentially shaving months off the application period required to open a new school.
“My goal is not to have more charter schools; it’s to have higher-quality charter schools,” said state Sen. Adam Pugh, R-Edmond.
Senate Bill 516, by Pugh, would create a Statewide Charter School Board that would “have the sole authority to sponsor statewide virtual charter schools” in Oklahoma and “may” also sponsor brick-and-mortar charter schools.
Charter schools are public schools that receive less overall funding than traditional public schools in exchange for being freed from some regulations imposed on traditional schools. The schools operate under a contract, or charter, with a sponsoring entity.
Currently, the State Board of Education can serve as a statewide authorizer for brick-and-mortar charter schools that have had their sponsorship application rejected by a local traditional school district. (The Statewide Virtual Charter School Board is the sponsor for all online charter entities.)
SB 516 would abolish the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board and shift charter-sponsorship authority from the State Board of Education to the new Statewide Charter School Board.
While the legislation would implement numerous reforms to Oklahoma’s charter-school laws, a key plank would eliminate a redundant appeals process that can drag out charter-school creation by months and impose significant and unnecessary costs.
Under current law, brick-and-mortar charter schools may apply to be sponsored by a local district. If the local district denies the application, the charter school must first appeal that decision with the local district. It is only after the local district has twice rejected the sponsorship request that a charter school can seek sponsorship from the State Board of Education.
Under SB 516, the appeals process would be eliminated and the charter applicant could immediately apply with the new Statewide Charter School Board after a local district denies an application.
That drew an objection from state Sen. Jo Anna Dossett, D-Tulsa, who argued the statewide board would be overruling a local school district whose officials have declared, “No, we don’t want this here.”
“This new state board will be able to override the decision of a local public school district that doesn’t want the entity operating within that school district,” Dossett said.
But Pugh said the current appeals process serves mostly to waste time and resources.
“We’re removing the appeals process because oftentimes in my study of what’s happening is the appeals process really just drags this out,” Pugh said. “And it seems somewhat unnecessary.”
One of the more high-profile instances of a local traditional school district refusing to sponsor a public charter school occurred in Seminole, where the Seminole Public School district refused to sponsor the Academy of Seminole charter school. The Academy eventually appealed to the State Board of Education, which granted sponsorship. The Academy opened in 2018 and has enjoyed strong enrollment growth since that time. The school has been successful and the State Board of Education approved a five-year contract renewal for the Academy of Seminole in December 2021.
In many instances, local school districts view charters as competitors and oppose the creation of new charter schools. Pugh noted officials in some districts have made no secret of their opposition to increasing the number of schools available to serve local students, regardless of quality.
“I’ve had schools come to me that said, ‘I will never sponsor a charter school,’” Pugh said. “They just won’t.”
SB 516 passed the Senate Education Committee on a 8-2 vote that broke along party lines with Republicans in support and Democrats in opposition.
Lawmakers also advanced Senate Bill 519, by Pugh, which requires the state Commissioners of the Land Office (CLO) to provide charter schools the “right of first refusal” to lease a vacant state property if the school is in the same county or adjacent to the county where the building is located.
While traditional public schools receive local property tax funds to pay for building acquisition and maintenance costs, public charter schools receive no local taxes and typically have significantly lower per-pupil funding than traditional public schools. As a result, finding an affordable building in which to house a charter school is often one of the greatest challenges facing charter supporters.
Pugh said SB 519 could reduce that burden in some situations.
“The CLO has land and it has buildings in abundance in some communities,” Pugh said. “In fact, this committee, several years ago, approved non-profits to access public-school buildings. And so I think that’s something that we have previously been receptive to in allowing good entities who have good missions to access additional infrastructure.”
SB 519 passed the Senate Education Committee on an 8-2 vote that also broke along party lines.