Education , Culture & the Family

Ray Carter | May 17, 2021

Tulsa students may see little benefit from open-transfer law

Ray Carter

Students in Tulsa Public Schools had virtually no in-person instruction for nearly a year as the district remained online-only long after most districts relaxed COVID-19 restrictions and reopened. This year, lawmakers voted to ease the open-transfer process, partly to help students like those in Tulsa shift to other public-school districts that would better serve them.

But exemptions in the new transfer law mean Tulsa students may still have few options. Of 11 districts that share a border with Tulsa Public Schools, as few as four may be required to even consider transfers from Tulsa Public Schools—and two of those districts are very small.

That reality shows the need to boost programs that help students attend private schools as well, such as the Oklahoma Equal Opportunity Scholarship, say school-choice supporters.

“Raising the cap on the Oklahoma Equal Opportunity Scholarship Act certainly allows a non-public school option for many more students than presently available,” said Sen. Dave Rader, R-Tulsa. “In addition, however, students in public schools may receive an option for a class not previously offered, as well. Raising the cap allows for more options both public and non-public—a win/win.”

Rader has long championed the Oklahoma Equal Opportunity Scholarship program, which provides tax credits to those who donate to scholarship-granting organizations and to organizations that support public schools. The program has played a significant role in supporting private schools that serve working families, such as Crossover Preparatory Academy in north Tulsa, a private school serving an all-male, mostly minority student body in grades six through nine.

Legislation to increase the size of the Oklahoma Equal Opportunity Scholarship program has advanced from House and Senate budget committees and is expected to be heard on the Senate floor.

At the same time, officials say this year’s open-transfer reforms may not be the last.

Sen. Adam Pugh, who authored the new open-transfer law and supports other school-choice efforts, said the open-transfer process must be constantly reviewed and refined, particularly as data is collected.

“We never pass one piece of legislation and just stop,” said Pugh, R-Edmond. “There are a lot of things we could do.”

One key reform contained in Senate Bill 783 was that it allowed for open transfer of students between public school districts throughout the year, and it also repealed a provision of state law that previously allowed “sending” districts to block a transfer.

However, SB 783 still allowed local districts to set capacity limits.

On a recent “frequently asked questions” document, the Oklahoma State School Boards Association (OSSBA) said the “most straightforward approach” for schools to determine capacity is “to use the class-size standards in state law.”

State law currently exempts schools from class-size mandates if the “school district has voted indebtedness” that exceeds 85 percent of the maximum bond amount allowed by state law and the Oklahoma Constitution. That exemption applies to any school that has approved bonds that exceed the 85-percent threshold at any point over five years.

Data obtained from the Oklahoma State Department of Education through an open-records request shows 96 districts, or nearly one in five statewide, exceeded that threshold at least one year from 2016 to 2020. (Data for the current school year was not available.)

Of the 11 districts that share a border with Tulsa Public Schools—Anderson, Sand Springs, Berryhill, Sapulpa, Allen-Bowden, Jenks, Union, Broken Arrow, Catoosa, Owasso, and Sperry—all but four exceed the 85-percent bonding-capacity limit, meaning those districts will likely be able to claim they cannot accommodate transfers from Tulsa Public Schools.

The only bordering districts that may not be ruled out are Anderson, Berryhill, Allen-Bowden, and Sperry. Two of those districts, Anderson and Allen-Bowden, are small districts that have reported no more than 353 students apiece in recent years, while Berryhill and Sperry both have more than 1,000 students apiece.

The Bixby and Glenpool districts, both located in Tulsa County but not bordering the Tulsa district, are also exempt due to bonding capacity.

In 2017, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute found a similar pattern in the suburban districts around Columbus, Ohio. While most schools in that state participated in open enrollment, the suburban districts around Columbus did not and students within that city faced severe limits on educational opportunity.

“Urban, minority students—those whom data indicate benefit the most from open enrollment—have the fewest open enrollment options,” the Fordham Institute report stated. “The reason: Most suburban districts that adjoin Ohio’s big cities refuse to accept non-resident students. This is troubling in several respects, not least because it perpetuates an educational system where low-income and minority students are denied opportunities available to their more advantaged peers.”

A recent report from the School Choice Demonstration Project at the University of Arkansas referred to such conditions as a “walled garden.”

While Tulsa may be the most notable example of a “walled garden” in Oklahoma, significant restrictions on open-transfer also exist in the Oklahoma City area. Data on bonded indebtedness shows several districts in the Oklahoma City metro could also be closed to transfers, including Piedmont, Yukon, Mustang, Moore, Norman, Guthrie, Crutcho, Jones, Millwood, Mid-Del, Bethany, and Shawnee.

As a result of the open-transfer law’s exemptions, students in Tulsa Public Schools may continue to have few options even as the district’s quality may have hit an all-time low. While the Tulsa district is consistently one of the worst-performing on academic measurements, performance plummeted even further during the district’s year-long COVID shutdown.

A midyear report released by Tulsa Public Schools showed that nearly every other student in Tulsa schools was flunking at least one class, around 14,000 students total. That was a huge increase compared to the prior year. Officials said 15 percent of students had at least one failing grade the prior year compared to 47 percent in December. The report also showed that the number of students with A and B grades had declined.

Even in prior years when a much smaller share of students received failing grades, Tulsa Public Schools’ performance on state-mandated tests was typically among the lowest in the state.

High levels of bond debt—which can include funding to pay for sports fields and equipment as often as classroom space—also exempt schools from having to reduce class sizes even when school funding increases significantly.

House Republicans have said this year’s hike in appropriations, which will result in state school funding surging from $2.4 billion in 2018 to $3.2 billion after this year’s budget is approved, will automatically trigger reduced class sizes.

However, the 96 districts that exceed the 85-percent level of bonded indebtedness do not have to comply with class-size mandates. Legislation has been filed to repeal that exemption, but it has drawn strong opposition from the Oklahoma State School Boards Association, which declared the proposal “punishes districts” and will create “instability in school budgets.”

Pugh noted SB 783 was the product of much compromise and some schools wanted even greater latitude to reject transfers. But he agrees Oklahoma’s open-transfer law can be further improved.

“I still think our transfer process is quite restrictive, truthfully,” Pugh said. “When we were comparing best practices around the country, most states that I saw that were doing this right, the parent has the authority to go to the public school district they want.”

Pugh also noted the new law requires schools to document why a transfer request is rejected and provides an appeals process for families. The law also requires annual audits of a set share of districts to ensure compliance. Those safeguards did not exist before, he noted, and will provide data that helps guide future discussions.

“To me that’s the goal: How are we serving those kids best?” Pugh said. “And if this language doesn’t do that, then we’ll come back and we’ll continue to work on it.”

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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