Ray Carter | October 4, 2022

Oklahoma open-transfer process often arbitrary for families

Ray Carter

A 2021 state law that expanded the ability for families to seek open transfers so their children can attend other public-school districts has resulted in a significant increase in transfer requests.

But new data indicate the process continues to disproportionately exclude many students currently stuck in Oklahoma’s worst-performing schools because neighboring suburban districts continue to refuse admission.

And a recent transfer appeal that went before the State Board of Education highlighted how arbitrary the transfer process can be for families. In that case, a student was denied a transfer for a seat he had already occupied in the district for the prior two years.

According to the Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE), there were 10,924 transfer requests made between Jan. 1 and Aug. 15, 2022. That compares to just 1,221 requests in 2021, prior to the expansion of open transfer, and 391 transfer requests in 2020.

While the 10,924 transfer requests is a dramatic increase from 1,221 requests in 2021, the latest figure still represents just 1.5 percent of students in Oklahoma schools, based on the 2021-2022 statewide enrollment of 698,696, the most recent figure available.

And many requests are still being denied. Overall, 8,417 transfer requests have been approved so far this year.

KOSU reported that denials have been “concentrated in suburban and exurban areas around Oklahoma City and Tulsa.” Between July and mid-August, KOSU reported that roughly half of denials were in just 10 districts due to reported capacity issues: Midwest City-Del City, Moore, Jenks, Tulsa Union, Collinsville, Edmond, Choctaw-Nicoma Park, Bethel, Broken Arrow, and Piedmont.

A majority of those districts share a border with either the Tulsa or Oklahoma City school districts.

That indicates students in those two districts, which are among the state’s worst based on academic results, remain substantially locked into those schools.

In the 2020-2021 school year, the most recent for which results are currently available statewide, state testing found that 89 percent of students were below proficient in all subjects and grades tests in the Tulsa school district. In Oklahoma City, 90 percent of students tested below proficient.

The lack of opportunity for Oklahoma City and Tulsa students continues a trend noted when the open-transfer expansion first took effect.

An analysis performed by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs in February found that many of the spots available to Oklahoma students were located in the Oklahoma City and Tulsa districts, based on the publicly reported data at that time.

In a review of 13 counties whose schools served more than 60 percent of Oklahoma students, OCPA found more than 10,000 total spots had become available this year for open-transfer students, a vacancy rate of less than 3 percent. But a majority of the identified open-transfer seats were located in the Oklahoma City and Tulsa school districts, meaning the worst districts were reporting the most available spots, limiting the benefit of the open-transfer law to students.

Under the law, districts may declare they lack space to accept transfer students. The definition of capacity is set by each individual district and can be based on widely different policies. That has caused transfer policies to appear haphazard or even arbitrary from district to district, as highlighted by a recent appeal of Jenks’s denial of an open-transfer request.

Willard Stanley Newman IV and his family lived in an apartment in the Jenks district when his son began attending school there two years ago. Newman said his son had made mistakes that resulted in him needing to attend Jenks’ alternative school, but that the youth did well in the Jenks system.

However, when the family had an opportunity to purchase a house and leave apartment living behind, they found themselves located just three miles outside Jenks’ district lines. The family filed an open-transfer request, but were denied.

Had the request been granted, Newman’s son would have been filling the same seat he had occupied within the district for the prior two years.

While some families have used false addresses to maintain a child’s enrollment in a preferred district, Newman told members of the State Board of Education that he and his wife did not want to go down that path and set a bad example for his son.

“We didn’t want to be sneaky,” Newman said. “We just wanted to be real with the school district and let them know that we moved him out and go about this the right way—in turn, showing him how to do things the right way.”

Stacey Butterfield, superintendent of Jenks Public Schools, told officials with the State Board of Education that Jenks does not have capacity to serve Newman either in its alternative center or as a junior in high school.

Butterfield said the school district set its capacity based on enrollment in English classes in the high school.

She admitted anyone who moved into the district would be enrolled in the school, although not necessarily granted access to the alternative center.

And Butterfield acknowledged that the district has seats available elsewhere, including in the same building where Newman’s son would have been served if admitted as an open transfer.

“We are not at capacity of the building,” Butterfield said. “We do have additional space in the building.”

Overall, Jenks enrollment has remained slightly below the student count from the 2019-2020 school year, according to figures from the Oklahoma State Department of Education.

In the 2019-2020 school year, Jenks served 12,527 students. That enrollment figure plunged to 11,979 in the 2020-2021 school year, and rebounded to 12,519 in the 2021-2022 school year, which remains below the 2019 figure. (Current school-year enrollment data for Jenks has not yet been posted by OSDE.)

Butterfield said the district has accepted 125 other open-transfer requests.

“We have a whole list of transfers, and we have a whole list that we’ve approved,” Butterfield said. “And we have some that we have denied based on capacity.”

In several instances, suburban districts have seen enrollment declines in recent years that significantly exceed the number of vacancies they have reported available for transfer students. In some instances, families seeking transfers have found that siblings will be forced into different schools. For example, a district might accept an open-transfer for a third-grade student but not the child’s fourth-grade sibling.

In some instances, parents have reported having to drive across multiple districts to get to a school that will accept their child’s open-transfer request.

Travis Jett, general counsel for the State Board of Education, told board members that the law does not allow them to critique the capacity policies of individual school districts when hearing an open-transfer appeal.

“The Legislature, in crafting law, didn’t give this board the authority to essentially challenge capacity determination,” Jett said.

The State Board of Education voted to uphold Jenks’ denial of Newman’s transfer request, but board members indicated that they felt the situation was unjust to the youth.

Board member Jennifer Monies moved to uphold Jenks’ refusal to serve Newman “with a heavy heart.” Board member Trent Smith echoed that sentiment: “I hate this.”

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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