Members of the Senate have joined House lawmakers in advancing legislation that could potentially increase open transfer of students among Oklahoma public schools.
Senate Bill 783, by Sen. Adam Pugh, would allow for open transfer of students between public school districts throughout the year. Such transfers are currently limited to a short period, other than “emergency” transfers that are subject to greater restrictions.
Under current law, Pugh noted both the “sending” and “receiving” school can prevent a transfer in certain situations, “but if you notice in there, nowhere does the parent or the kid have the authority, and that’s really what this bill tries to solve.”
SB 783 allows local districts to set their capacity limits, and students can be denied a transfer for several reasons including absenteeism and discipline issues. School districts would have to publicly post capacity numbers on a quarterly basis, and districts would be required to report on the number of transfer requests received and the reason for any denial.
The legislation would allow parents to appeal any denial of a transfer to the local school board and, if denied again, to appeal that decision to the State Board of Education. The time frame for that process could extend over roughly two months.
One opponent objected to the appeal process.
“The state school board, I would rather them not overrule local school-board decisions in general,” said Sen. J.J. Dossett, D-Owasso.
But supporters said local boards’ focus may not align with what is best for a child.
Sen. Marty Quinn, R-Claremore, noted a local school board “is going to be protective of that school” and, since funding is ultimately tied to enrollment, “the tendency, I believe, is for them to try to limit these people being able to leave, as much as possible.”
“There are a lot of frustrated folks in our communities right now that don’t feel like their voices are being heard by local school boards, just to be blunt,” Pugh said. “And so we’re giving local school boards the ability to let parents have their voices heard, but if they feel they are not getting a fair hearing, then I think one appeal to the state board is appropriate.”
Sen. Dewayne Pemberton, a Muskogee Republican who previously worked 26 years as a school administrator, said he initially opposed the open-transfer bill, but noted Pugh had made many adjustments to address his concerns. Pemberton said he also had some hesitancy about allowing the State Board of Education to overrule a local school board but noted state taxpayers have a role in all schools.
“These school districts all get state dollars, not just ad valorem dollars, but state-aid dollars, which comes from the taxpayers from all over the state, not just their district,” Pemberton said. “So I can see where the state board should have some, maybe, a point or a place in there.”
“When it comes to how we raise and educate our kids, we have these random boundaries and if we don’t live in the right one, well, tough luck.”
—State Sen. Adam Pugh
Under the bill, the Office of Educational Quality and Accountability would randomly audit the capacity numbers reported by 10 percent of school districts and all denied transfers. If the office finds “inaccurate reporting,” the Office of Educational Quality and Accountability would then set the capacity for a school district moving forward.
One opponent said SB 783 would sever communities and leave some children behind.
“With the open transfers, are you concerned about cutting community ties, which would in turn potentially disrupt bond issues?” asked Sen. Carri Hicks, D-Oklahoma City. “Let’s just say my family voted down, we voted against, a bond issue for our local school district, but then we asked to be transferred into a different school district because they have nicer facilities.”
Pugh noted that local property tax funding already follows students when they move to another school in the same county and also said schools need to meet the needs of those they serve.
“I don’t care if a neighborhood has a school if it’s not serving the people in that neighborhood,” Pugh said. “The whole point of this legislation is if somebody in a neighborhood is saying, ‘This school doesn’t meet my needs,’ give them the choice to go to a school that does meet their needs and allow that school to maybe take account.”
Dossett said he opposed the legislation because school officials in his district oppose open transfer.
“I don’t have local community and school leaders on board with this yet,” Dossett said.
Hicks said she opposed the legislation because of the “instability that we could be potentially introducing into a child’s education.” She said “poverty” explains poor school performance and lawmakers should “address the root causes” of that issue rather than ease the open-transfer process, adding that legislators should “invest heavily in additional funding and supports to address the challenges of why a parent feels their student is not getting the services that they deserve at their local school.”
“If we were talking about those issues, I would be on board, but we’re not,” Hicks said. “We’re talking about basically leaving the problems behind to benefit maybe one student, or maybe 10 students, who have the ability to provide their own transportation.”
But Pugh said money alone is not sufficient.
“No amount of money is going to solve the burden that we place on schools to be everything to everybody,” Pugh said. “So that is not the solution, though I think this body over the last four years has a history of investing in education in the state of Oklahoma. So to me that can’t always be the only argument.”
Supporters said SB 783 would increase the ability of Oklahoma families to find the best school for their child, regardless of where they live.
“When you look at the window of a student, it’s extremely small compared to the overall life of that individual,” Quinn said. “So we should want to make sure that we have given that kid every single opportunity—whether it’s in our neighborhood or the next neighborhood—to make sure that they achieve all that they can achieve.”
“I just go back to one simple thing: This puts a parent and a student directly involved in the conversation of ‘Where do I get to go to school?’” Pugh said. “We don’t base anything else on our geography but K-12 education. If I surveyed this entire room, y’all went to colleges different places, probably not where you grew up. You may go to church outside of some random line around your Senate district. You probably shop different places. You may even shop online. You are free to seek a doctor anywhere you want in the world. Your health care insurance may not pay for it, but you can certainly go. You can literally do anything else outside of some random boundary that was drawn probably before you were even born—except the most personal thing we could possibly do, which is raise our kids. When it comes to how we raise and educate our kids, we have these random boundaries and if we don’t live in the right one, well, tough luck.”
SB 783 passed the Senate Education Committee on a 9-3 vote with all Republicans in support and all Democrats opposed.