Public schools serve all children? Oklahoma parents find that’s not so


Ray Carter | March 25, 2024

Public schools serve all children? Oklahoma parents find that’s not so

Ray Carter

Public-school defenders often say those schools serve “all children.”

But the parents of children with an Individualized Education Program (IEP)—those with special needs that range from dyslexia to autism and beyond—are finding that’s not the case when it comes to the state’s open-transfer system.

Under current law, public schools are allowed to deny the families of special-needs children not only access to a new school, but even information on the number of spaces available or why the child was denied a transfer. Yet, at the same time, those schools provide far more access and information to other children.

“Right now we have one system (where) if you are a student without disabilities, you have certain protections and rights,” said state Rep. Chad Caldwell, R-Enid. “If you are a student with disabilities, you have fewer rights. And that’s what we’re trying to fix.”

Caldwell discussed the problem in a recent meeting of the House Common Education Committee where lawmakers were voting on legislation devoted to the issue.

Under Oklahoma’s open-transfer law, schools must publicly provide information on how many spaces are available in each grade and school site. If a school denies a student’s transfer request, school officials must provide an explanation. Families denied a transfer may also appeal that decision, first to the local school board and then to the State Board of Education.

But the same process doesn’t occur when the children seeking a transfer are on an IEP.

“Right now, they don’t even have to tell the student why they denied the transfer,” Caldwell said.

Lucia Frohling, director of parent services at Oklahoma Parents for Student Achievement, helps families navigate the state system when parents feel their child is not being well-served in their current district.

While most children only have to get approval from the district they want to transfer into, Frohling noted that children on an IEP must get their transfer signed off by both their current school and their prospective school.

“The two teams have to meet and they make the decision, which then leaves the kids with no appeals process,” Frohling said.

She said the hurdles placed in front of families of children with an IEP lead some parents to take drastic action.

“They want to go somewhere else, but there’s just not any options because they’re blocked because their children are on an IEP,” Frohling said. “So some of them have even gone so far as to take their child off an IEP, then try to transfer them, and then have them re-evaluated.”

That means children lose services that help them continue learning until they are again on an IEP. That gap is “at least 45 days once they get in the new district,” she noted—meaning the students go about one-fourth of the school year without needed services.

But those families have good reason to want to leave their current school.

“They feel like their kids aren’t being served properly, or for some kids they’re not providing the specially designed instruction that would enable them to make ambitious progress in light of their unique circumstances,” Frohling said. “Essentially, they’re not being prepared for further education, employment and independent living, which is the whole tenet of IDEA (the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act).”

Horror stories abound of children being left behind by a system in which school employees are allowed to actively discriminate against them.

One family in southern Oklahoma saw multiple schools slam the door in the face of their daughter when she sought a transfer—even though the transfer was sought because the child had been molested by a school employee in her current education setting.

“There was no way we were going to let her go back to that school,” the child’s mother said. “And so there was open transfer, but let me tell you, it was pulling teeth.”

(The mother and child are not identified by name in this article to protect the minor’s privacy.)

The family contacted multiple schools but found that “no school wanted to take her even though the money follows her.” In fact, the mother noted, the schools “refused to give us enrollment papers to try to let us enroll her there. They just would not do anything.”

She contacted numerous state and local elected officials seeking help.

“I was very fortunate because it was an election year,” the mother said. “It truly was (fortunate), because I don’t know that I would have gotten phone calls back had it not been an election year—but it was.”

It was not until schools began receiving calls from state officials that a district finally accepted the girl as a transfer student. The mother said her daughter is now in a much better place—both in terms of her physical safety and academic progress. But it took political pressure to make the transfer happen.

“That’s the only reason that we got her into a very good school,” the mother said. “She’s just flourishing. The difference in her is night and day from what she was getting (at her prior school). They were nothing but babysitters.”

But the mother believes the successful outcome of her daughter’s case may be an exception, not the rule, for many children on an IEP, and she noted the emotional toll was enormous.

“I was on the phone five hours a night, every night, and it took weeks to get any kind of result,” the mother said. “And we honestly did not know what we were going to do—if I was going to have to quit my job and homeschool, but then she wouldn’t have had the socialization that she deserves. It’s one of the most heartbreaking things I’ve ever been through in my life. It was terrible.”

Others have not been as fortunate.

Terrycia Casteel, who lives in the Oklahoma City metro area, has not been able to move her daughter to a new school through open transfer, and said the child’s current district has not served her well.

“She was having trouble with bullying and IEP and disability and racial discrimination,” Casteel said.

Casteel’s daughter has medical challenges, including seizures, which require her to take medication. So far, no public school will accept her transfer.

In the meantime, Casteel is left watching as her daughter’s mental health declines.

“It’s gotten so bad to where she started hurting herself,” Casteel said.

Parents see their tax dollars used to hire lobbyists to oppose them

Wanting to level the playing field so that all children are treated the same under Oklahoma’s open-transfer law, Caldwell filed House Bill 3915 this session.

The bill requires school districts to “establish availability of the appropriate program, staff caseloads, and services” prior to approval of a transfer and “adopt a policy to determine the number of transfer students with disabilities the school district has the capacity to accept based on program, staff caseloads, and services no later than January 1, 2025.”

In determining capacity to serve transfer students with special needs, HB 3915 allows districts to account for the number of special education programs and special education services offered by the school district “such as speech language therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, and other services,” as well as the staff caseloads per program, the district’s special-education class-size capacity, and general capacity for students on an IEP who will be placed in the general education classroom during all or part of the instructional day.

If a school denies a transfer request from a student on an IEP, the bill allows the family to appeal the decision to the district’s board of education, and if denied again to appeal a final time to the State Board of Education. That duplicates the process provided to students who do not have special needs.

But the bill drew swift opposition from schools, via their paid lobbyists.

The Oklahoma State School Boards Association (OSSBA) opposed the bill and encouraged school officials across Oklahoma to lobby their legislators in opposition.

OSSBA is funded through payments from schools. The schools’ payments to OSSBA come from taxpayer funds. In essence, schools use the taxes paid by parents to pay OSSBA lobbyists to advocate against parents when bills like HB 3915 are filed.

OSSBA claimed that schools cannot easily determine capacity for students with special needs, yet information contained in OSSBA’s statement of opposition indicated that capacity could be determined, even if the process involves more factors.

For example, OSSBA admitted that federal law specifies how many students a special-education teacher can work with—known as the caseload limit—meaning schools can calculate a number based on the caseload and special-education staff figures.

OSSBA also argued that a caseload limit “is more complex” because school officials would have to consider “the individual needs of each student and factors like how much time a student spends in a regular or special class setting.”

“The complexities involved in meeting the daily, changing needs of students with special needs make it impractical and unwise to set a static number for accepting transfers in any given time period,” OSSBA’s statement claimed.

But HB 3915 contained language allowing schools to consider those factors when determining capacity.

“All we’re stating is, just like we ask them to do with our students without disabilities, just tell the people—tell parents across the state—here’s how many kids and positions that we have available for students with disabilities,” Caldwell said. “If they want to get down into the level of that disability, by all means they have that right; it says it in the bill that they can do so. And then if you deny a transfer, they have the ability to appeal.”

Lawmakers respond to the plight of special-needs students with denial, indifference

At least one member of the House Common Education Committee responded to the plight of the families of children with special needs by simply denying their open-transfer challenges are real.

“The open-transfer act, it says all kids have this option,” said state Rep. Melissa Provenzano, D-Tulsa. “Do we exclude special-education children from the open-transfer act? Have they been excluded for two years now?”

“They have been,” Nancy Goosen, an official with the office of special education at the Oklahoma State Department of Education, replied.

“I find that hard to believe,” Provenzano said. “I believe that superintendents across the state would find that hard to believe.”

Goosen told lawmakers that many provisions of the state’s open-transfer law do not apply to children on IEPs because a separate section of law deals with those students. And that section of law does not allow for an appeal of a transfer denial.

“There’s currently not an appeal process in that format because it’s a conference between two districts regarding those services on the IEP,” Goosen said.

Another lawmaker effectively argued that school officials should be allowed to treat children differently based on their special-needs status, arguing that a state law requiring equal treatment was imposing state standards on local officials.

“We’re talking about taking local control out,” said state Rep. Dick Lowe, R-Amber.

Opponents of HB 3915 narrowly prevailed in the House Common Education Committee. The bill failed to advance on a 5-6 vote. Five Republicans, including Caldwell, voted in favor of the bill. The opponents included three Democrats and three Republicans.

With the effort to ensure equal treatment for children now stalled at the Capitol, many families who are seeking a school transfer for children on an IEP are left with little to cling to beyond hope that, somehow, things may change.

For Casteel, there is real fear for what may happen to her daughter before the system provides better options.

“I’ve just been sitting here praying a miracle happens, because I don’t know what’s going to happen for the rest of the school year, and next year she’s going to high school and she’s already dealing with depression,” Casteel said. “Being isolated, away from people, and already dealing with depression is not going to help her. I just don’t know what to do.”

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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