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Five education bills to watch this session

Jennifer Palmer
Oklahoma Watch
The Nichols Hills Elementary School library.

It has been a disruptive and uncertain year for public education. And the initiatives to be considered by the Oklahoma Legislature could continue to shake things up. 

Districts experienced huge shifts in student enrollment this year. Most declined slightly, especially in the youngest grades. Meanwhile, enrollment in virtual charter schools skyrocketed. 

Oklahoma Watch

Some lawmakers are addressing this moment with initiatives to expand student transfers between districts and rework the decades-old funding formula. 

Another lingering issue at the state house is Epic Charter Schools. How will lawmakers address the findings of the state Auditor and Inspector’s report, released in October? One lawmaker is continuing her quest to rein in the virtual school with new accountability measures. 

Here are five education-related bills to watch this session: 

Increasing oversight of charter schools

Bill number: House Bill 1735

Sponsor: Rep. Sheila Dills, R-Tulsa

Rep. Sheila Dills, R-Tulsa

This bill would increase public oversight of charter schools, particularly those that contract with an educational management organization, or EMO, which are private companies. 

EMOs are typically used by charter schools. The state’s largest virtual school, Epic Charter Schools, pays 10% of its revenue to the for-profit Epic Youth Services to manage its schools, and the arrangement drew criticism from the state auditor’s office in its investigative audit of the school and related companies. 

The bill would also require public reporting and auditing of all funds used for student curriculum, instruction, technology, extracurricular or educational activities. This would prohibit the arrangement Epic has with Epic Youth Services for its learning fund, which is used to purchase student curriculum, supplies and activities.  

Dills, who chairs the House Republican Caucus, carried several successful bills in 2019 and 2020 to improve transparency and accountability by virtual charter schools.  

“I want better accountability and transparency throughout all education funding,” Dills said in a recent press release. “These changes to statute will provide more protections for our students and reassure our taxpayers that their dollars are being spent wisely and as intended.” 

Revising the school funding formula

Bill number: House Bill 2241

Sponsor: Rep. Kyle Hilbert, R-Bristow

Rep. Kyle Hilbert, R-Bristow

One of the education reforms Gov. Kevin Stitt championed in his State of the State address was changing the school funding formula. A spokeswoman for the governor said he is working closely with Hilbert on legislation to do so. 

“It’s time for schools to be funded based on how many students they have now — not how many they had in the past,” Stitt said, using the term “ghost students” to describe an aspect of the funding formula that allows districts to use their current year’s weighted student count, or one of the past two years, whichever is highest. 

The provision helps districts avoid abruptly laying off staff when enrollment dips unexpectedly and protects schools from having to cut services that would impact students still enrolled — particularly in a year like this one which has had unstable enrollment due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Stitt said there are 50,000 “ghost students” being funded right now, repeating a talking point from the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a conservative think tank that advocates for school choice.

Before “ghost students” became a conservative catch phrase, it was used in 2019 by an Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation agent investigating Epic Charter Schools, the state’s largest virtual school. The agent alleged in a search warrant affidavit that Epic’s co-founders inflated its student count by enrolling or retaining students who received little or no instruction from Epic teachers. Epic denies wrongdoing and no charges have been filed.

House Bill 2241 doesn’t yet include any language to describe how it would work. Neither does another of Hilbert’s education-related bills, House Bill 2243. Hilbert is vice chair of the House Appropriations and Budget Committee. 

Allowing charter schools to fund buildings with bonds

Bill number: House Joint Resolution 1036

Sponsor: Rep. Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City

Rep. Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City

This bill would call for a state referendum to allow charter schools to propose a bond in a local community to raise funds for buildings, including new construction, maintenance or equipment. Currently, charter schools are prohibited from receiving bond funds. 

Under the proposal, a charter school would have to own or occupy a building within the local school district boundaries and have at least 50% of its students live within the district boundaries. 

Most charter schools use buildings in their sponsoring school district or they rent space. Oklahoma charter schools paid an average rent of $184,816 annually, according to a 2019 report by the National Charter School Resource Center, which found a high demand for charter school buildings in Oklahoma. 

One issue voters would need to grapple with, if the bill passes, is that charter schools close more often than traditional schools. By law, charter school contracts are written for a maximum of five years and one bill would shorten that to three. At least two charter schools have closed since 2019 and two are at risk of losing their contract this year.

There are already two mechanisms in state law to pay for charter school buildings (the Charter School Incentive Fund and the Common School Building Equalization Fund) but neither is funded. 

Learning through play

Bill Number: House Bill 1569

Sponsor: Rep. Jacob Rosecrants, D-Norman

Rep. Jacob Rosecrants, D-Norman

This bill, the Oklahoma Play to Learn Act, would encourage teachers and school districts to create opportunities for students to learn through play, including child-directed, spontaneous and joyful activities. 

Rosecrants, who was a public school teacher before being elected to the Legislature, ran a similar bill in 2020 that stalled due to COVID-19. The current version is gaining support from educators and other lawmakers, with a growing list of bipartisan co-authors. 

“It is designed to empower teachers in the early childhood grade levels to teach children the way they were taught to teach children, in a fun, play-based way,” he said, adding he hopes the initiative will also help retain and recruit early childhood teachers.

Rosecrants says learning through play is backed by research, showing early elementary students gain many skills through play — including problem solving, critical thinking, social skills, fine motor skills and gross motor skills. 

Yet, early childhood teachers say they are frustrated by pressure to increase academic rigor and teach standards in the early grades, crowding out time to play. 

House Bill 1569 would implore teachers “to the best of their ability” to create classrooms that facilitate play and ask districts to support those efforts and provide professional development. 

Expanding student transfer opportunities 

Bill Number: Senate Bill 783

Sponsor: Sen. Adam Pugh, R-Edmond

Sen. Adam Pugh, R-Edmond

This bill would expand the ability of students to move to a school outside their residential boundaries through a transfer. 

It would require districts to report the number of student seats available each year and, if transfer applications exceed that number, select students through a lottery.

Transfers could be denied based on a student’s history of absences or discipline issues. But districts would be prohibited from approving or denying a transfer based on a student’s ethnicity, national origin, gender, income level, disability, proficiency in English, measure of achievement, aptitude or athletic ability.

Open transfer is allowed under current law if the receiving district approves. But districts aren’t required to approve a transfer unless the student’s grade level isn’t offered in the district where they live.

The bill doesn’t provide any provision for transportation of transfer students, which could raise equity issues.

Stitt said he wants to see school transfer options expanded across the state. “If a school district has space available and is a better fit for a child, the government should make that happen — not stand in the way,” Stitt said during the State of the State address. 

Pugh is chairman of the Senate education committee.