Ray Carter | February 2, 2021

Legislation advances to boost charter-school red tape

Ray Carter

Even as COVID-19 shutdowns of in-person learning continue to disrupt the education of countless children across Oklahoma, members of a state Senate committee voted Tuesday to increase the regulatory burden facing some groups seeking to provide parents with additional public-school options by opening a charter school.

Senate Bill 239, by Sen. Dewayne Pemberton, would impose additional regulatory requirements for groups seeking to launch a public charter school in instances where the charter school is opposed by local public-school officials.

Although local districts may serve as charter-school sponsors under state law, officials at traditional public-school districts often view charters as competitors and can have hostile relations with charter-school organizers.

SB 239 was advanced at the urging of a lobbyist entity that represents most traditional schools. And the bill was developed without input from Oklahoma’s charter-school leaders.

Pemberton, R-Muskogee, said the legislation was requested by the Oklahoma State School Boards Association (OSSBA).

“Have you talked to the Charter School Association, by chance, at all?” asked Sen. Zack Taylor, R-Seminole.

“No, senator, I have not,” Pemberton replied.

The OSSBA’s funding comes from tax dollars paid to the group by school districts who join the organization for purposes that include lobbying services.

The OSSBA also maintains a map of Oklahoma counties that are color-coded based on current per-capita rates of COVID-19 infection. Under the guidelines promoted by the OSSBA on its website, school districts in 59 of Oklahoma’s 77 counties are currently “recommended to confer with county or state health department officials to examine building closures and distance learning until community transmission declines.”

Charter schools are public schools but are also free to operate without some regulations normally imposed on other schools. The most notable difference is that many charter-school teachers are not union members.

Existing law states that charter schools may be sponsored by a local school district, technology center, university, federally recognized Indian tribe, and the State Board of Education.

The State Board of Education can currently sponsor charter schools primarily when a charter application “has first been denied a charter by the local school district in which it seeks to operate.” In such cases, a charter school may appeal the local district’s denial by seeking sponsorship from the State Board of Education.

SB 239 imposes additional requirements for schools going through that appeals process.

The bill makes it illegal for the State Board of Education to sponsor a charter school “unless the State Department of Education has made a determination and recommendation that the Board has the capacity, both in financial and personnel resources, to sponsor a charter school and the capacity to adhere to the contractual requirements and follow the sponsor contract guidelines” associated with sponsorship.

That change increases the power of the state superintendent of public instruction, who runs the Oklahoma State Department of Education, in comparison to other members of the State Board of Education. The state superintendent serves as the chair of the State Board of Education while the group’s other members are gubernatorial appointees.

SB 239 also adds other specific requirements for the appeals process.

Since the appeals process has been in effect, only a handful of charter schools have used it and received sponsorship from the State Board of Education. Pemberton said his law would have barred at least one of those prior approvals by the State Board of Education.

The most notable example of a charter school sponsored by the State Board of Education as a result of the appeals process is the Academy of Seminole. That charter school has experienced strong enrollment growth since its founding and reports having 295 students enrolled this school year.

SB 239 passed the Senate Education Committee on an 11-1 vote. Only Sen. Nathan Dahm, R-Broken Arrow, voted in opposition.

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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