Coffee proposal would expand Oklahoma’s charter schools

Senate President Pro Tem Glenn Coffee, an Oklahoma City Republican, has introduced legislation to boost charter school structures within the state’s public school system. While the measure is still in development, it will be introduced formally within the next week.

Coffee’s proposal, Senate Bill 1862, would grant charter authority to large city mayors. It would also remove caps on the number of charter schools allowed.

Specifically, the measure would allow municipalities with populations of 300,000 or more to sponsor charter schools, and/or authorize them. It would also expand public school bond elections to include charters. Native American tribes would become part of the charter system, and have specific authority to sponsor or authorize such schools.

Geographic restrictions on charter schools in general would be removed. Charters would be allowed within districts with ADM (average daily membership) of 5,000 students or more, regardless of what county those districts are in.  (Charters are presently limited to the state’s two most populated public school districts, Oklahoma City and Tulsa.)

S.B 1862 would require the state Department of Education and the Department of Central Services to document and publish a list of vacant taxpayer-owned buildings that might be suitable for charter schools. A press release announcing that provision noted similar projects are under way in Arizona, Delaware and South Carolina.

In an interview with CapitolBeatOK in which he was asked about possible opposition to the bill, Coffee said, “The nexus of the opposition will come from some within the education community who will raise questions about certain provisions, including the municipalities serving as sponsoring organizations for charters. Some will question giving charter schools any access to bonding capacity, as well.”

CapitolBeatOK asked why the support for charters of men like President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan has not been persuasive to some critics of charter schools. Coffee responded, “The answer to that frankly escapes me. The research is showing that charters schools are a solution, not the only solution but a solution, a tool to combat the problems facing our underperforming schools.”

Asked to summarize the significance of S.B. 1862 for increasing the impact of charter schools in the state, Coffee replied, “I think it is a far-reaching and significant effort. It is designed to take our state from a grade of ‘D’ to a grade of ‘A+’ in terms of the environment for charter schools and the creativity that results from the existence of charter schools.”

Asked to assess the chances for other school choice measures, including SB 1922, sponsored by Sen. Dan Newberry of Tulsa and tagged the Oklahoma Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship Act, Sen. Coffee responded, “I think Sen. Newberry’s bill, and others to promote choices face challenges in getting through the Legislature and in getting the governor’s support with his signature.”

Applauding the Coffee bill was former state Rep. John Bryant, an original sponsor of charter school legislation in Oklahoma. Bryant now works for the state Charter School Association.

In an interview with CapitolBeatOK, Bryant said, “Passage of Senator Coffee’s bill would mark a great step forward in providing parents and students with more choices. His legislation would create options that currently do not exist and some we cannot even imagine. Removing the caps on the number of charter schools and providing accountable innovation for our public schools.”

Rembering his own efforts to create charter schools in Oklahoma, Bryant continued, “Charter schools have been supported by Democrats and Republicans alike. The fact that the Clinton, Bush and Obama administration have been champions of charter schools proves that this is a concept and a reform movement that members of both parties can support. Senator Coffee obviously appreciates and understands the promise of charter schools and we truly appreciate his efforts on behalf of public education and charter schools.”

In a press release announcing his intention to press for the charter school expansion, Coffee said, “Mayors across the nation are enthusiastic about this opportunity to reform their local schools and provide more quality educational access to their respective cities. We want to make this available to our cities, and we believe this will expand a very successful reform that has increased student achievement and parental involvement in the educational process.”

Coffee continued, “Charter schools provide greater opportunity for minority and poor students, require greater accountability, and have been proven to produce a higher level of achievement for their students.” He described his measure to advance the growth of public charter schools as “a win-win proposition for our kids and our state.”

In a statement sent to CapitolBeatOK, Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett said, “I personally support this proposed legislation. There are a number of exciting new trends in education, and I think this will be a new tool to consider. I believe this also sends the message that we consider public education very important in Oklahoma City, and intend to maintain that focus in the years to come.”