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Senate Bill 782 would expand charter school availability statewide

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Oklahoma, which lags behind most states, could greatly expand its use of charter schools with the passage of new legislation.

Senate Bill 782 would allow charter schools to exist in every school district across the state — not just in Oklahoma City and Tulsa — by removing the population threshold that currently exists. The bill would also allow school districts to convert their own schools to charters.

After passage in the House and Senate, SB 782 is awaiting signature by the governor, which had yet to occur as of press time on Monday.

Bills related to charter schools have not always been an easy sell in the Legislature. The Republican majority is often supportive of school choice. But many of the state’s largest education organizations, along with rural members of the Legislature, are not as supportive of charter schools, which critics see as a mechanism for taking money and power away from public schools.

“The ability to convert a public [school] to a charter [school] is something I would like to educate myself on a little more because it’s never been an option for use before,” said Dave Cash, superintendent of Locust Grove schools. “But I’m interested in this idea. When charter schools were first enacted in Oklahoma, I was like, ‘Great, but let us all do it; let us all reap the benefits to letting us run schools like a business and not like the way we have to now.’”

Cash said SB 782 could allow him to convert his current schools to charters, which would exempt him from some mandates he believes take resources away from education.

However, not all educators are supportive of the bill. Teachers at a capitol rally last month expressed their opposition to the bill, and the Oklahoma Education Association, a state teacher’s union, has also publicly decried the bill.

The Democratic caucus in the House voted against the bill, saying it would harm public schools to allow charter schools to open in small towns.

“That’s like saying you want to open a new grocery store in a town of 150 people,” Rep. Scott Inman, D-Del City, told The Oklahoman. “At the end of the day, there are not enough people there to support it.”

The Oklahoma Public School Resource Center (OPSRC), which welcomes the expanded use of charter schools, threw its support behind SB 782, saying it was legislation that would give public schools more flexibility.

“Our teachers should be the innovators, so let’s remove the red tape that currently gets in their way and does not allow them to be innovative,” said Brent Bushey, OPSRC executive director.

Bushey said the flexibility offered to charter schools is a model that can work for public schools, which is why his organization supports giving public school districts the ability to convert their own schools to charters.

While SB 782 gives school districts the power to convert schools to charters, it does not give districts the final say on potential charter schools opening in their community. The bill would allow a denied charter school application to essentially appeal that denial to the state Board of Education.

The bill also places some new standards on charter schools, including an automatic denial of status under the current sponsor if a charter school is in the bottom 5 percent of performance when compared to every public school in the state.

“Although charter schools enjoy tremendous flexibility, this bill ensures oversight and accountability requirements must be met,” said Rep. Lee Denney, R-Cushing, who, along with Sen. Clark Jolley, R-Edmond, sponsored SB782.

If approved by Gov. Mary Fallin, SB 782 could drastically increase the number of charter schools in Oklahoma — although it’s unknown how many rural sponsors would emerge in the first years of the new law.

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), a pro-charter school organization that tracks charter school use by state, has publicly recommended that Oklahoma expand charter school availability to the entire state, instead of in just 4 percent of Oklahoma school districts. There are currently 29 charter schools in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, according to the Department of Education. The NAPCS ranked Oklahoma No. 36 (out of 43 states that have charter schools) on its practice of charter schools, based on a variety of benchmarks. Compared to most states that allow charter schools, Oklahoma’s number of charters is relatively low.

“According to our recent rankings report, Oklahoma has one of the weakest state public charter laws in the country,” Nina Rees, president of NAPCS, said in a statement through the Oklahoma Senate media department. “The current charter school law allows charters only in approximately 4 percent of the state’s school districts — mostly those located in Oklahoma and Tulsa counties. We expect Oklahoma will move significantly higher in our rankings if this bill becomes law.”

Print headline: School expansion, Senate Bill 782 could open the door to many more charter schools across Oklahoma.

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