LESSON PLAN: Understanding public charter schools, in one easy lesson

OKLAHOMA CITY – Comments from a state legislator have created consternation and concern among advocates for educational improvement, including defenders of public charter schools.

State Rep. David Perryman, D-Chickasha, became merely the latest non-urban state legislator to echo inaccurate claims that charter schools are not public schools. He did so in the course of responding quickly to questions I posted, via email, concerning an amendment he sponsored that would explicitly limit a proposed state income tax exemption to those he deems public school teachers.

Although he is otherwise known as a serious person and a hard-working legislator, in his responses, Rep. Perryman stressed his income tax relief proposal would not include charter school teachers. He also stressed his approach in the matter would not include private school teachers.

I believe all families that include teachers in common education, PK-12, could put income tax relief to good use in their budgets.
Leaving aside private school teachers, however, a quick review of the best in-state resources on public charter schools may prove educational to any who share Perryman’s views.

The home page of the Oklahoma Charter Schools Association website is a study in brevity, stating accurately, “Charter schools are public schools given the freedom of more innovation while still being held accountable for advancing student achievement. Because they are public, they are open to all students. 

However, they neither charge tuition nor have special entrance requirements.”

In a sketch called “Our Story,” the association explains, “Public charter schools are an important piece of the Oklahoma Public Schools system, offering parents the opportunity to choose the school that best suits their child and can accommodate the specific needs that a parent or child requires to ensure a quality education. Public charter schools create competition which will strengthen the quality of public education across the state.”

We are not talking about an insignificant number of Oklahoma teachers, who could use a break. As the Association details, “In Oklahoma, there are over 13,000 students currently enrolled in public charter schools and another 2,300 on waiting lists. 29 Oklahoma public charter schools serve students in 75 of the 77 counties. These schools focus on providing each child with the best education available and allowing them to reach their full potential.”

Elsewhere, in a “FAQ” (frequently asked questions) section, the association continues, “Charter schools are public schools that are responsive to students’ needs and are held accountable for improved student achievement. They are highly innovative and designed to deliver programs tailored to educational excellence and the needs of the communities they serve.

“They can be sponsored by the local school districts, CareerTechs, universities, federally recognized Indian tribes, and the State Department of Education. They operate with freedom from many of the regulations that apply to traditional public schools but are still held to the same accountability.

“The basic concept of a charter school is to exercise increased autonomy in return for accountability. Charter schools are responsible to several groups for both academic results and fiscal practices: the sponsor that grants them, the parents who choose them and the public that funds them.”

The list of public charter schools now operating in Oklahoma includes ASTEC Charter Schools, Deborah Brown Community School, Discovery School of Tulsa. Dove Science Academy, Dove Science Academy Elementary, EPIC Charter School, Harding Charter Preparatory High School,
Harding Fine Arts Academy, Independence Charter Middle School, and Justice Alma Wilson SeeWorth Academy (the institution where I am a public charter school teacher).

The list of operating charters includes KIPP Reach College Prep, Oklahoma Virtual Charter Academy, Santa Fe South High School, Santa Fe South Middle School, Stanley Hupfeld Academy at Western Village,
Tulsa School of Arts and Sciences, and Santa Fe South Elementary School.

At one time or another over the past 15 years, I have visited many of these institutions in my ongoing efforts to cover Oklahoma education – public and private – highlighting both challenges and uplifting examples of excellence and innovation.

Charter schools are, by law, public schools. They are supported by taxpayer dollars (albeit the threshold amount of support in Oklahoma remains at 85 percent of the resources that follow a traditional public school student).

Concerning accountability and testing requirements, public charter school students, as the association explains, “must take all the same required tests as traditional public schools, and they are held accountable not only to the state but also to their charter sponsor.”

Further, “Public charter schools are open to all students to enroll. When applications exceed a school’s capacity, a random lottery is held.”

Of importance here in Oklahoma City, “There is no significant difference in the percentage” of English Language Learners (ELLs) “served by traditional public schools or public charter schools.”

Association leaders, information posted on their website, stress that public charter schools do not “skim or cherry-pick” their students.

Briefly put, “[C]harter schools serve all students. They have no selective admissions requirements, and they must accept all students, including English language learners and students with special needs.

Additinal information is available from the Oklahoma Charter School Association, P.O. Box 3341, Oklahoma City, OK 73101, telephone 405 272-0649, or email info@okcharters.org.

NOTE: Patrick B. McGuigan is editor of CapitolBeatOK.com, the online news service he founded in 2009, and publisher of The City Sentinel newspaper. A certified teacher, he teaches at a public alternative charter school in Oklahoma City.