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Charter school reform bill advances in Oklahoma Legislature, but still has a long way to go

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A bill that would create significant changes to charter school authorization advanced through the House of Representatives Common Education Committee Tuesday morning.

Senate Bill 1621, though, still has a long way to go. The measure authored by Edmond Republican Senator Adam Pugh would create a new statewide charter school board that could sponsor any charter school in the state.

Currently, there’s a decentralized system for authorization. Charter schools can be sponsored by a wide variety of institutions like public school districts, Native American tribes, and colleges and universities. Oklahoma’s Statewide Virtual Charter School Board and the Oklahoma State Board of Education oversee a handful under specific circumstances.

Rep. Sheila Dills, R-Tulsa, is the House sponsor of the bill. She said the measure would eliminate the state’s virtual charter school board and replace it with the new entity. She said that was a recommendation by State Auditor and Inspector General Cindy Byrd in her explosive audit report of Epic Charter Schools from 2020.

“We're trying to set up a system in Oklahoma where we have adequate oversight of charter schools, where we have consistency and transparency in all that we do,” Dills said. “And I think this bill would take us a long way in ensuring that the money that's allocated for students goes to students.”

Dills said that much of the legislation is subject to change. She listed author priorities for the bill as it continues to be worked on:

  • Developing funding mechanisms for a new statewide charter school board.
  • Creating consistent transparency and oversight for charter schools.
  • Eliminating authorizer shopping. That’s the practice of low performing charters looking for new schools to avoid accountability measures.
  • Developing a performance framework and a performance evaluation metric process for charters.
  • All while keeping local communities involved in the process.

For some of those goals, significant pieces of the legislation would need modification. For example, an Oklahoma State School Boards summary and analysis of the bill as it was passed by the Senate says there’s a lack of definition of “community support” if a charter is sponsored by a statewide entity. It also says, as written, there are inadequate protections for authorizer shopping.

Those are things the authors are looking at moving forward, Dills said, when asked by other lawmakers during the committee hearing.

The bill also says charter contracts are to last for 10 years, and Dills said, she’s interested in changing that.

The title is off the legislation. That means it needs to be reapproved by the Senate if passed by the House, before heading to the governor.

Robby Korth joined StateImpact Oklahoma in October 2019, focusing on education reporting.
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