Ray Carter | February 18, 2022
Oklahoma open-transfer law benefiting few students
A new open-transfer law that allows students to shift from one public school to another has been touted as a significant expansion of opportunity for Oklahoma children.
But a review of public data, conducted by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA), shows a significant share of the slots available through open transfer are in two of the state’s most troubled and academically struggling districts—Oklahoma City and Tulsa.
Otherwise, should students want better options, they are often blocked from transferring, particularly to suburban districts touted as public-school successes.
Those findings come as leadership in the Oklahoma House of Representatives has cited the open-transfer law as justification for not enacting more significant school-choice legislation this year.
“We did a lot of work last year on open transfer and collaborated with everybody on that,” House Speaker Charles McCall said recently. “I personally believe that is the best policy for the state because it works in all four corners of the state.”
McCall made those comments as he announced he would not allow a House hearing on Senate Bill 1647, by Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat, which would create the Oklahoma Empowerment Account (OEA) Program.
“I think some of the public-school caps are artificially low to keep people from transferring in, especially at the tremendously good schools.” —Senate leader Greg Treat
Under the proposed program, any student eligible to enroll in a public school would be eligible for an OEA, which could be used to pay for a range of education services, including private-school tuition. Money deposited into the account comes from the per-pupil allotment of state funding already dedicated for education of a child.
The state’s new open-transfer law, approved by legislators in 2021, allows for transfer of students between public school districts throughout the year. Previously, such transfers were mostly limited to a short period of time.
Under the new law, “sending” districts are no longer able to block a transfer, but local districts get to set their own capacity limits and receiving districts can deny a transfer for several reasons. School districts are required to publicly post capacity numbers.
Although described by McCall as working statewide, OCPA’s review of publicly available data shows the open-transfer law has generated relatively little opportunity for students, particularly in urban and suburban areas.
In a review of 13 counties whose schools serve more than 60 percent of Oklahoma students, OCPA found that more than 10,000 total spots became available this year for open-transfer students, a vacancy rate of less than 3 percent. (OCPA’s analysis is ongoing and data from schools in other counties continue to be added.)
But access to good public schools is much lower than even that small vacancy rate, because a majority of the identified open-transfer seats were located in the Oklahoma City and Tulsa school districts.
According to the results of state testing, 90 percent of students in the Oklahoma City school district performed below grade level in the 2020-2021 school year with 67 percent more than a year behind in core subjects. In Tulsa, 89 percent were below grade level with 64 percent more than a year behind.
‘How Can We Keep Kids Out?’
In contrast, many suburban districts report very few available spots for open-transfer students, even in districts where overall enrollment has declined in recent years.
For example, enrollment figures reported to the Oklahoma State Department of Education by the Union school district in the Tulsa area show the district has 807 fewer students enrolled this year than in the 2019-2020 school year. But Union claims it has only 362 slots available for open-transfer students this year.
In fact, the Broken Arrow, Bixby, Jenks, and Union school districts report having only 464 seats available combined across all four districts—a figure that is far less than the enrollment decline at Union alone.
Availability is even more limited by grade level.
Similar patterns are notable in the Oklahoma City area.
Officials at the wealthy Deer Creek school district in Oklahoma County claim that district has no slots available for any open-transfer students in any grade.
Current enrollment at the Choctaw-Nicoma Park district is 106 students lower than it was two years ago, but the district reports having only 42 slots for open-transfer students, almost all at a single elementary campus.
Enrollment in the Moore district has declined by 446 since the 2019-2020 school year, but the district claims it has just 107 spots available for open-transfer students.
Robert Ruiz, executive director of ChoiceMatters, an Oklahoma organization dedicated to increasing education options for parents, said some districts have even refused to serve students who would have effectively filled their own prior spot in the district.
“We had parents that were in the district but had to move out for whatever reason; they just want to keep their kids there so they can finish off their high-school experience,” Ruiz said. “These are not new people. These are just people that want to take advantage of the new law to be able to keep their kids in the schools that they are already in. And they’re being denied.”
The low number of open-transfer slots reported by some school districts has drawn the attention of top legislative leaders. During a recent meeting of the Senate Education Committee, lawmakers openly discussed their concern that some school districts may be gaming the open-transfer system.
“I think some of the public-school caps are artificially low to keep people from transferring in, especially at the tremendously good schools,” said Treat, R-Oklahoma City.
Sen. Adam Pugh, an Edmond Republican who authored the open-transfer law, expressed a similar view.
“As I shepherded that bill through the legislative process, I begged—begged—public schools to partner with me,” Pugh said. “But every conversation I had (with school officials) centered around how can we keep kids out. It was never about how can we let kids in. So, the truth is if you cannot afford to live in my district, where the average real estate transaction last year was $417,000, you don’t get access to my great public school.”
The Edmond school district reports having 137 spots available for open-transfer students this year, but 33 percent of those slots are in the 12th grade at a single high school. The district reports having no slots available for any other high-school students in any grade.
Many Districts Flouting Transparency Requirements
For some parents, the challenge may not be the limited number of open-transfer spots available to their children, but a complete lack of information. Despite the law requiring public posting of open-transfer data, it appears many school districts are not complying with the law, based on a review of their websites.
That problem appears rampant in McCall’s own district, which includes all or portions of Atoka, Garvin, Johnston, and Murray counties. Of 21 districts in those four counties, 16 do not appear to be publicly reporting open-transfer capacity.
In Atoka County, it does not appear any school district in the county has publicly posted the number of open-transfer slots available. That includes the Atoka, Stringtown, Lane, and Harmony school districts.
Similarly, most school districts in Johnston County do not appear to be compliant with the reporting requirements of the open-transfer law, including the Tishomingo, Ravia, Mannsville, Millburn, Wapanucka, and Coleman districts.
Despite the severe lack of opportunity generated by the open-transfer law so far, McCall has said the House Republican caucus is satisfied with the results and unwilling to consider legislation that would provide a much greater array of education options to students and their families.
“Our body last year, we made a priority to move forward the open transfer, which we believe works in the rural parts of the state, works in the urban and suburban parts of the state,” McCall said. “And we’re very comfortable with that policy.”
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.