Saturday, February 26, 2022

Small: Bureaucrats, not families, retain power under open-transfer law

By Jonathan Small

When lawmakers voted last year to expand open-transfer opportunity, allowing families to more easily send children to school districts other than the one in which they reside, supporters thought the change would empower parents.

But bureaucrats still hold the upper hand and many parents’ open-transfer choices are limited to Oklahoma’s worst schools.

That fact highlights the need for lawmakers to pass robust, expansive school-choice legislation that allows state funding to follow a child to any school, including private schools. The opportunities created by open transfer simply do not meet the needs of families.

An ongoing review of public data conducted by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs has covered 13 counties whose schools serve more than 60 percent of Oklahoma students. So far, OCPA has found school districts in those counties have reported more than 10,000 total spots available for open-transfer students, a vacancy rate of less than 3 percent.

But Oklahoma City and Tulsa school districts combined accounted for 4,717 of those seats. In fact, in Oklahoma County 65 percent of open-transfer opportunities are in the Oklahoma City district. The Tulsa district represents nearly 53 percent of open-transfer opportunities in Tulsa County.

Put simply, open transfer often offers opportunity to send children to districts that generated the demand for open transfer in the first place. Otherwise, many students find themselves still barred from a better school.

In suburban districts, often highlighted as public-school successes, district officials often claim there’s few or no spaces available—even if a district’s enrollment has declined.

For example, the Union district near Tulsa 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.

Officials at the wealthy Deer Creek school district in Oklahoma County claim there are no slots available.

Enrollment in the Moore district has declined by 446 since the 2019-2020 school year, but just 107 spots are reported available.

In Edmond school district, 33 percent of open-transfer slots are in the 12th grade at a single high school.

Elsewhere, many school districts have not bothered to report open-transfer data, despite the requirements of state law. In House Speaker Charles McCall’s district—which includes all or portions of Atoka, Garvin, Johnston, and Murray counties—16 of 21 districts do not appear to be publicly reporting open-transfer capacity.

That leaves parents statewide with relatively few options. Even when schools report having spots available, they are often clustered in just a few grades at specific school sites. Having a child who checks all the boxes is not dissimilar to picking the winning numbers for a lottery ticket.

That isn’t parent empowerment, nor is it putting the needs of students ahead of the wishes of status-quo officials. It’s time to put parents in charge. It’s time to pass robust school choice.

Jonathan Small serves as president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.


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