Ray Carter | March 18, 2021

Report shows open transfer alone not enough

Ray Carter

This year both chambers of the Oklahoma Legislature have approved bills that would ease the “open transfer” process, potentially allowing more students to attend a wider range of public-school districts.

Among the arguments made for expanded open transfer is that it will ultimately boost academic achievement as students are able to find public-school districts that better serve them.

But a new report suggests open-transfer policies, while part of the equation for academic improvement, are of limited benefit unless a state also embraces robust school-choice policies in other areas, such as public charter-school competition and funding for private-school options.

A new report released by the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas—“Education Freedom and Student Achievement: Is More School Choice Associated with Higher State-Level Performance on the NAEP?”—ranks states based on school-choice opportunity and compares those rankings with student scores on National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) tests, often called “The Nation’s Report Card.”

The report’s state rankings on educational freedom are based on state support for homeschooling, public charter school options, public-school choice in general, and private-school choice programs.

Arizona ranked in the top five states for both charter-school choice and private-school choice, and eighth on public-school choice.

In the report’s overall “Educational Freedom Index” for 2021, which was based on the combined scores from the four subcategories, Arizona ranked best in the nation.

Arizona’s top ranking was also associated with a significant improvement in student achievement over the last 20 years as the state increased school-choice opportunities through multiple venues.

“Importantly, Arizona students have shown statewide improvement in academic outcomes,” the report states. “The NAEP debuted new 4th and 8th grade Science exams in 2009, and last administered them in 2015. NAEP also tested students in 4th and 8th grade Math and Reading during this period. Arizona students were the only state group to show statistically significant gains in all six NAEP exams.”

The report indicates open-enrollment policies have been embraced in Arizona largely because the state also has significant charter-school and private-school choice options.

Unlike Oklahoma, where charter schools are almost all located in the state’s two major urban centers, Arizona officials have supported a broad network of public-charter schools that serve children across the state.

The National Alliance of Public Charter Schools showed Arizona had 557 charter schools in 2018 with 230 of those charter schools located in Arizona’s suburbs, towns and rural areas. Nearly 20 percent of all public-school students in Arizona today attend a charter school.

“The prevalence of charter schools creates a financial incentive for school districts in suburbs, towns and rural areas to participate in open enrollment,” the University of Arkansas report states. “Likewise, Arizona’s private school choice initiatives include a mix of programs with universal eligibility, means-tested eligibility, and special program eligibility targeted to poorly-served student populations. As opposed to a choice program focused exclusively on a single urban area, these programs also serve students residing in districts across the state. In combination, Arizona’s charter and private choice programs have grown and districts have responded with open enrollment policies, presumably to try to retain enrollment.”

Oklahoma’s charter schools have also been hindered by a lack of funding, particularly for facilities. A prior 2020 report by the Department of Education Reform at University of Arkansas gave Tulsa an “F” for its “overall funding disparity grade.” The report found that per-student revenue in the traditional Tulsa Public Schools district was $12,949 per student in the 2017-18 school year, but just $7,686 per child in Tulsa’s public charter schools, a difference of $5,263, or 41 percent.

During a 2019 legislative study, an official with the Tulsa Honor Academy (THA) charter school urged lawmakers to address the lack of funding for charter-school facilities. Even with the huge funding disparity, 56 percent of seventh-grade students at Tulsa Honor Academy performed at grade level or better on state math tests, compared to just 17 percent in the Tulsa district and just 8 percent in surrounding neighborhood schools.

Tulsa Honor Academy’s student body is predominantly low-income and minority, and the average student enters Tulsa Honor Academy, which serves children in grades five through nine, performing 2.5 years below grade level.

House legislation has advanced this year to provide more funding to Oklahoma charter schools for facility needs, but at the same time the Senate has advanced legislation to increase the regulatory burden facing communities that seek to launch new charter schools.

The University of Arkansas report indicates that competition created by robust charter-school competition and private-school choice programs incentivizes traditional Arizona public-school districts to embrace open enrollment and improve overall service.

The report noted that open-enrollment participation in Arizona “is nearly universal. A study of Phoenix area districts reveals that open enrollment transfers outnumber charter school students almost two to one. Through open enrollment, charters, private school choice or homeschooling, most students in the nine districts examined attend a school other than their zip-code-assigned district school. Scottsdale Unified School District’s demographic study found that a quarter of students living within the boundaries of the district attended schools outside the district. In 2014, Scottsdale Unified lost 9,000 students to other options but gained 4,000 students from other districts. Scottsdale Unified, unlike suburban districts in Ohio, is a school choice option for area students rather than a walled garden.”

The University of Arkansas report ranked Oklahoma 21st for private-school choice, despite the relatively small size of private-school choice programs in Oklahoma, because there is a near-complete lack of such programs in many other states. The top five states in that subcategory ranking were Iowa, Minnesota, Arizona, Indiana and Florida.

Oklahoma ranked 29th in charter-school choice while the top five states in that category were Arizona, Florida, Colorado, California and Indiana.

Oklahoma also ranked 29th in homeschool options.

Oklahoma’s best ranking in any subcategory was 13th for public-school choice opportunities. However, that high ranking was tied to evaluators’ preference for more public-school districts rather than fewer. The public-school choice ranking included factors such as “the number of students per school district” and the “average geographic size per district.” With more than 500 school districts, Oklahoma has more districts than most states of similar population size and more districts than many states with dramatically larger populations.

The University of Arkansas report indicates advancement of a single school-choice policy, such as open transfer, will have modest impact on its own, but when combined with robust school-choice measures can generate significant academic improvement.

The report notes that from 2009 to 2015, Arizona students made significant gains on NAEP tests. Arizona fourth-grade students’ scores surged eight points on math tests even as national scores remained unchanged. Similarly, Arizona scores on eighth-grade math jumped six points on NAEP tests during that period while national scores remained stagnant. In fourth-grade reading, Arizona scores jumped five points as the national average declined one point, and in fourth-grade science Arizona student scores jumped 11 points on NAEP compared to a national average increase of just four points. In eighth-grade science, Arizona student scores jumped seven points while the national figure rose just four points.

“Arizona has experienced a virtuous cycle of some school choice begetting more school choice and resulting in above-average academic improvement,” the report states. “Charter and private school choice programs have grown alongside an active open enrollment system of public school choice. This dynamic developed over a long period of time and with a consistently increasing amount of choice over two decades. During that time, Arizona’s student body transitioned from being majority-Anglo to majority-minority, but the state’s NAEP scores nevertheless improved across all student subgroups.”

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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