More than two decades after charter schools became alternatives to traditional public schools in Oklahoma, state lawmakers are analyzing how those schools are being managed. A group of lawmakers on Wednesday launched two interim studies that look at how charter schools are funded, and the cost-per-student between brick-and-mortar schools and their virtual counterparts.
A third interim study also launched on Wednesday will look into the responsibilities of those who oversee charter school sponsors.
Rep. Randy Randleman, R-Eufaula, has seen charter school funding become a major issue over the past year. As one of the lawmakers launching the interim study, he said the main issue on Wednesday was to begin gathering information about the system. He said public schools in Oklahoma are doing a good job of educating students but doesn’t want to dismiss what charter schools can do for some students. “There is a place for charter schools in our state, because everybody learns differently,” he said.
One way lawmakers will begin gathering information is to look at how other states handle charter school funding and oversight, Randleman said.
Plainview Public Schools Superintendent Karl Stricker said state funding for virtual charter schools, in particular, is having an affect on traditional school systems because it leaves less money allocated for public brick-and-mortar schools. “There has been such substantial growth in the number of reported virtual charter students that it creates a situation where that pool of money is reduced,” he said on Thursday.
The Oklahoma Legislature approved charter schools in 1997 and the legislation went into effect two years later, according to data from the Oklahoma Legislature and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. In 2017, state legislation was passed that requires virtual charter schools to keep attendance records of students, and a new state law passed in May requires virtual charter schools to use the same financial reporting requirements used by traditional school districts.
Randleman said on Wednesday he is fairly confident that new legislation related to charter school funding and oversight could be introduced once the Oklahoma Legislature convenes in February 2020.
Rep. Lundy Kiger, R-Poteau, another lawmaker helping launch this week’s study, says he feels that both brick-and-mortar and virtual charter schools have a role in the learning process for some Oklahoma children. “But we must have total transparency into how they receive funding per student and how that money is spent,” he said in a Wednesday statement. He went on to say that traditional public schools should not receive the same type of funding as charter schools that don’t have building or maintenance costs.
“There also are costs that brick-and-mortar schools incur that virtual schools do not, but at the same time there are some revenues that charter schools do not receive that traditional schools do,” said Rep. Zack Taylor, R-Seminole, who is also helping launch the study.
During the 2018-2019 school year, 660,161 Oklahoma K-12 students were enrolled in traditional public schools, according to data from the Oklahoma Public Charter School Association. That same year, 38,425 students were enrolled in 30 charter schools across the state, making up about 5.5% of all Oklahoma K-12 students. The number of reported students in brick-and-mortar charter schools was only slightly higher than that of students enrolled in the state’s four virtual charter schools.
Stricker admits there is a shift in how students are being educated, and that classroom time could be replaced with virtual time. “To be honest with you, we have kids working full-time jobs and are basically supporting themselves,” he said, adding that regular school hours are difficult for some students. He says there are programs being put together in the public school sector that are addressing these issues — including blended learning and recovery credits — which allows students to complete classes using technology.
He also said that some charter schools are effective, while others just aren’t.
“When something is fairly new and you don’t have a lot of experience with it, mistakes are made,” Stricker said. “There’s definitely some work to be done.”