Budget & Tax, Education
Open transfer wins strong Senate support
March 2, 2021
Legislation increasing the opportunity for children to transfer from one public school to another won easy approval in the Oklahoma Senate, overcoming opponents’ arguments that funding alone should be emphasized rather than making it easier for a family to leave a school.
“We have to stop treating parents and families and kids like they’re the least important factor in education,” said Sen. Adam Pugh, R-Edmond. “We have to prioritize their needs over the needs of a system that I would argue is quite outdated.”
Senate Bill 783, by Pugh, would allow for open transfer of students between public school districts throughout the year. Such transfers are currently limited to a short period, other than “emergency” transfers that are subject to greater restrictions.
Pugh said 36 states have more robust open-transfer policies than what Oklahoma has today.
Under the bill, “sending” districts would no longer be able to block a transfer. SB 783 also allows local districts to set capacity limits and receiving districts can deny a transfer for several reasons including absenteeism and discipline issues. School districts would have to publicly post capacity numbers, and districts would be required to report on the number of transfer requests received and the reason for any denial.
The legislation would allow parents to appeal any denial of a transfer to the local school board and, if denied again, to appeal that decision to the State Board of Education. The time frame for that process could extend over roughly two months.
Under the bill, the Office of Educational Quality and Accountability (OEQA) would randomly audit the capacity numbers reported by 10 percent of school districts and all denied transfers. If the office finds “inaccurate reporting,” the OEQA would then set the capacity for a school district moving forward.
Opponents of the bill argued that, rather than allow families to transfer students out of a district, lawmakers should instead increase funding to that district.
Sen. Carri Hicks, D-Oklahoma City, said transferring students “drain resources from neighborhood schools” as state funding is eventually adjusted based on enrollment.
“This is about dollars and cents,” Hicks said.
Sen. Mary Boren, D-Norman, said SB 783 “overpromises improvement” in schools, saying she did not believe a year-round open-transfer process would be a significant change to the current system. She also suggested the desire to transfer may be tied to A-F grading of schools, which she criticized.
“If powerful people didn’t benefit from F schools, we wouldn’t have them,” Boren said. “There was a time in Oklahoma we didn’t have F schools.”
Sen. David Bullard, R-Durant, opposed the bill, saying he believed it would increase administrative spending.
But supporters said lawmakers should focus first on students, not school sites.
“I’ve heard, ‘I worry about every child,’” Pugh said. “If you vote no on this bill, you’re worried about every building. You’re not worried about every child.”
“Too often in this building, we focus on the entities rather than the individual,” said Sen. Nathan Dahm, R-Broken Arrow. “We focus on organizations, often forgetting that our constituents are people. Yes, organizations are made up of people, but we need to focus on those individuals, on the people themselves. That’s what this bill allows us to do.”
“This is about the child,” said Sen. Kim David, R-Porter. “We focus, many times, on funding and how that funding works, and I believe that funding needs to be worked out around how we’re going to work out the education for that child. And if we’re moving into an open-enrollment state, then we will fix the funding to make sure our schools are funded. But to do nothing and to continue to expect a different outcome is the definition of insanity.”
Pugh noted lawmakers have significantly increased school funding in recent years but said funding alone does not solve all problems. He noted Oklahoma’s per-pupil funding is around $15,000 per child after all sources are included, pointing to public state financial reports.
“If it’s about funding, how much money does it take?” Pugh asked. “I’m the chair of education, and no one’s given me a dollar amount. How much money does it take then? No one will answer that question.”
Senate Bill 783 passed on a 32-15 vote. Six Republicans joined Democrats in opposing the bill.
Both the House and Senate have now advanced open-transfer legislation this session.