Legislation to ease the state’s open-transfer process for students wanting to attend another public-school district has gained committee approval.
The legislation was prompted, in part, by the refusal of several major school districts to provide parents with the option of full-time, in-person instruction.
“I would support this policy no matter what year, but I think we have seen with the pandemic that there’s some parents that are stuck,” said Rep. Brad Boles, a Marlow Republican who presented the bill in committee. “They are stuck in schools that don’t have in-person options. If you have a family that both parents work and they have nowhere to take their kid, but their school is not offering an in-person option, then that’s a very difficult, challenging situation. Do they quit their job? Do they have to find a daycare for their kids? That costs money. Do their kids stay at home by themselves—which I think, as a parent of an eight- and 10-year old, I would not feel comfortable with that. And so I think, at the end of the day, if schools are not going to offer in-person options, they should at least afford the ability for parents to transfer to a school that does.”
House Bill 2074, by House Speaker Charles McCall, provides for open transfer between public school districts year-round and removes some existing restrictions on those transfers.
Under the bill, a receiving district would be allowed to limit transfers based on a capacity number developed by the district and schools could also deny transfers if a student has been a discipline problem or chronically absent from his or her current school.
Each month, all public-school districts would be required to publicly post the number of transfers they can accept and report that information to the state.
If the number of transfer requests exceeds the number of spaces available, districts would be required to approve transfers through a public lottery process.
Under current law, both the sending and receiving school district must agree to a transfer request for it to be approved. Under HB 2074, the student’s current school district will no longer hold veto power. Supporters said that is an important reform.
“A child may want to leave a school district, and the receiving school district may even be willing to receive them, but the sending school can deny that transfer and literally hold a kid hostage just because of their zip code, and that’s a problem,” said Rep. Kyle Hilbert, R-Bristow.
Although receiving school districts would still be allowed to reject transfer requests, parents could then appeal that decision to the State Board of Education.
In addition, under HB 2074, the Office of Educational Quality and Accountability will be required to randomly audit approved-and-denied transfers in 10 percent of school districts each year. If that audit demonstrates a district has inaccurately reported its capacity levels to rig the transfer process, then the Office of Educational Quality and Accountability would be in charge of setting capacity for the offending school district in future years.
Boles said HB 2074 will provide parents with more transparency.
“Basically, receiving schools currently have the ability to deny transfer, really, without cause,” Boles said. “They can just say they don’t have capacity. They can say whatever they want.”
Under current law, families may seek an open transfer to another public-school district only at the end of a school year, unless they are seeking a more restrictive “emergency” transfer. Should HB 2074 become law, the open-transfer process would be available throughout the entire year.
One opponent suggested the legislation should increase funding for schools that experience a net loss of students from open transfers.
“I’m worried about draining our schools,” said Rep. Melissa Provenzano, D-Tulsa. “Are there any contingencies for schools that are struggling to be supported? Because if you drain all the kids away to another school, that doesn’t really fix an issue, per se. You just move the kids that might be struggling and need support to another location. Are there any backfill supports for the school that is losing the child?”
Boles, who is a former school-board member, said in situations where a school has “more transfers going out than coming in,” there should be a “a self-analysis on what’s going on at our school.”
“There’s no intention with this bill to negatively or punitively hurt schools that are losing transfers, but at the same time I don’t think it’s fair for kids or students to be stuck in these schools with no alternative, which is what’s currently going on,” Boles said. “At the end of the day, we’ve got to think, ‘Are we more concerned about the students or the school system in general?’ And I think at the end of the day, if I have to choose one or the other, I would always side with the students and their parents.”
In 2017, data from the Oklahoma State Department of Education shows there were 26,707 transfer applications filed statewide with 2,406 denied, about 9 percent of the total. In 2018, there were 27,346 transfer requests submitted and 2,179 denied, about 8 percent. In 2019, Boles said about 7.5 percent of transfer requests were denied.
One opponent said those figures indicate the existing system is working and the revisions in HB 2074 will have little practical effect.
“Presumably, of those 2,100 denials, a lot of them would have been for reasons that will still be denials today—attendance and discipline, for example,” said Rep. John Waldron, D-Tulsa.
Boles predicted the number of transfers will increase with a year-round process and said parents will also have access to more information on transfer availability and the reasons for denials if HB 2074 becomes law.
Critics also suggested transportation costs will be a problem for many families that would consider open transfer to another district.
“If a student has to provide their own transportation, are we perhaps creating an environment where the ‘haves’ are able to transport but the ‘have nots’ are not able to transfer?” Provenzano asked.
“I think we’re really cutting down a lot of the ‘have’ and ‘have nots,’” Boles replied, “because now the ‘have nots’ that can’t afford to sell their house and move to another school that they want to go to can actually transfer.”
Supporters of the legislation said it would bring a modicum of competition into the school system that incentivizes improved performance.
“Competition and options, that makes everything better, and iron sharpens iron,” said Rep. Kyle Hilbert, R-Bristow.
“Just because a parent is a resident in a particular school district shouldn’t result in them having to send their kid to that school district that may not be meeting their needs,” Boles said.
HB 2074 passed the House Common Education Committee on an 11-3 vote. The lawmakers voting in opposition were Provenzano, Waldron, and Rep. Ronny Johns, R-Ada.