Oklahoma charter schools have been, by law, limited to the two larger urban areas: Oklahoma City and Tulsa. Charters are considered public schools, are held accountable by the same testing and school grade metrics as typical public schools, but with some key deregulation freedoms in hiring, certifying, and retaining employees, in scheduling, and in fundraising. As public schools, charters receive a portion of the per-pupil allocation from the state, but a smaller portion than traditional public schools. Currently about 10,000 students attend a brick-and-mortar charter, and another 10,000 attend virtual charter schools in the state.
A new law allows school districts to designate a school within the district a charter, or for parents to apply to establish a charter school within the district. Such charters must have the support of the local elected school board. But if the school board denies the application, an appeal to the appointed State School Board can be made.
Oklahoma has had three charter schools go through the application process: Carlton Landing School, Academy of Seminole, and Le Monde in Norman. Academy and Le Monde applications were rejected by their local boards, and appeals were approved by the State School Board. Only Carlton Landing is currently accepting students. Emotions run high in these communities where charters are proposed, with parents choosing to support either their school board or their charter school.
Two recent events have kept the charter issue in the news: a $16.5 million federal grant, Expanding Opportunity Through Quality Charter Schools, to expand charters in the state, and the announcement of Millwood Public Schools that they will convert two of their three schools into charter schools with emergency-certified teachers who cannot meet the state’s requirement for employment.
The grant was applauded by Oklahoma Public School Resource Center (OPSRC), a group that provides services for public schools and charter schools. OPSRC predicts that as many as 25 new charters could be established with the help of this grant. U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was quoted in the article announcing the grants: “Charter schools are now part of the fabric of American education, and I look forward to seeing how we can continue to work with states to help ensure more students can learn in an environment that works for them.”
But, because of Oklahoma’s low per-pupil funding allocations, other experts predict there won’t be massive movement from out-of-state for corporate charters to build in the state.
Just last week, a school district in the Oklahoma City metro area announced plans to convert its elementary and middle schools to charters as a way to save emergency-certified teachers’ jobs, and keep classrooms staffed.
Millwood Public Schools, with an enrollment of 900 students, along with other districts in the state, has struggled to hire certified teachers. The Oklahoma School Board has approved a record number of emergency certificates for teachers and has loosened the requirement for these teachers’ passing their required exams for certification: OGET, OPTE, and subject area tests, OSAT.
Millwood Schools has seen some of their emergency-certified teachers fail the needed tests within the window for continued employment, or they cannot afford the tests or complete the education requirements for continued certification. Converting to a charter will allow the district to deregulate teacher certification and employment requirements, and will save ‘dozens’ of teacher jobs, keeping these teachers in the classroom, avoiding more upheavals for students. The district, with its 86% African American enrollment, has used the emergency certification policy to hire more teachers of color, increasing teacher diversity. This conversion will not affect enrollment, as charters are required to accept all students who apply.
Ramifications to students: Low teacher salaries, the defeat of State Question 779, which would have funded raises from a penny state sales tax, and the legislature’s inability to find funding for raises have exacerbated the teacher shortage in the state. Results include larger class sizes, record numbers of emergency-certified teachers – over 1800 this year, and classes with substitute teachers filling in for teachers who are leaving the classroom every week. State testing requires all third graders to show on-level proficiency in reading, and all 8th graders to pass on-level reading tests. Reading proficiency is particularly targeted for accountability. Students cannot rely on a stable classroom setting with a highly-qualified teacher.