, Muskogee, OK

February 28, 2013

Panel approves charter school overhaul bill

Associated Press

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — An Oklahoma state senator pointed to Oklahoma charter schools' low national rankings and a lack of statewide standards Wednesday to convince the Senate Appropriations Committee that the state should take over the charters' authorization.

Sen. Clark Jolley, an Edmond Republican and the committee's chairman, told his colleagues the bill is meant to improve charter school quality by creating a statewide commission that would put potential schools through a "rigorous" authorization process. The committee approved the bill 16-4, sending it to the full Senate.

"What we want to make sure is you've got quality," Jolley said. "We want consistency — that's why we have one authorizer."

Charter schools, which are public schools run by sponsors such as colleges, school districts, tribes or other entities, can be more flexible in their day-to-day structure than traditional schools but still must meet state standards. Other than reporting to sponsors, however, charter schools currently have little or no state oversight, Education Department Chief of Staff Joel Robison told The Associated Press.

"We basically receive the information in from the district about the charters, and we verify that they've got the requirements," Robison said.

If approved, Jolley's bill would form a Public Charter School Commission that would authorize the state's charter schools and act separately from the Education Department. Jolley said Oklahoma's charter schools are ranked 34th out of the 43 states that allow them, and this commission would provide consistent standards statewide to bump up that number.

"All those folks can still start a charter or have a charter in their district if they would like, but it would go through a single authorizer that is analyzing and making sure everything is up to snuff," he said.

Committee members raised several concerns, including whether creating the commission would divert money from traditional schools or whether the Education Department should simply be given more oversight.

"I really do like the idea that we are strengthening the requirements and we're expecting more," Sen. Brian Crain, R-Tulsa, said before voting against the bill. "I kind of get the feeling that we're doing this on the fly, and that worries me."

Responding to such concerns, Jolley said the bill would only help students.

"This is public dollars going to public schools," he said. "What we want are charters that are actually good charters."

Oklahoma has 19 charter schools with more than 12,000 students, almost 2 percent of the state's 673,000 public school students, according to the State Board of Education.