Editor’s Note: Carlton Landing is an underwriter of KGOU. This story was produced by our content partner Oklahoma Watch. Both newsrooms at KGOU and Oklahoma Watch are editorially independent from KGOU’s fundraising.
A proposed charter school in a lakeside resort community would mark the state's first expansion of public charters into rural areas under a new law allowing for their presence statewide, school officials say.
The proposal to bring a public charter school to the tiny town of Carlton Landing on Lake Eufaula comes amid a climate of rapid expansion in the charter school sector.
In February, proposals surfaced to add charter school sites within Oklahoma City Public Schools, the state's largest school district. Tulsa is sponsoring three new charter schools, all of which have a college prep focus.
As of Oct. 1, charter schools enrolled 19,893 students in the state, according to the Oklahoma Department of Education. About half the students are in online charter schools.
The surge in plans for charter schools, which are publicly funded schools allowed to operate under fewer requirements than district schools, is being driven by several factors. For non-urban areas, it is a change in state law in 2015 that for the first time permits charter schools sponsored by school districts to open in areas outside of Oklahoma City and Tulsa.
The expansion sought in Oklahoma City is due in large part to the strong enrollment growth in some of the city’s highest-profile charter schools: Santa Fe South Schools, the city’s largest charter school system; John Rex Charter Elementary downtown, and KIPP Reach College Preparatory in the northeast area.
Chris Brewster, superintendent of Santa Fe South, said the proposal is about giving options to parents.
"High quality options can be traditional public schools, magnet schools, charter schools. The goal is to be part of the solution ... to make sure every student in Oklahoma City has a great place to attend," he said.
However, the trend worries district school leaders and parent and teacher groups, who say charter school growth will erode state and local financial support of district schools, which must teach the most impoverished and challenging students.
Growth in Charters
Seven new charter schools have opened in Oklahoma since 2014, bringing the state total to 29 excluding virtual schools, according to the state Education Department.
They are College Bound Academy, Collegiate Hall, Langston Hughes Academy for Arts and Technology and Tulsa Honor Academy, in Tulsa; and Lighthouse Academies and John W. Rex Charter Elementary in Oklahoma City.
Also in 2015, the Office of Juvenile Affairs opened a charter school called Oklahoma Youth Academy for incarcerated teens at its facilities in Tecumseh and Manitou.
In addition to new charter programs emerging, enrollment at some existing charter schools has risen sharply.
Santa Fe South schools, a charter with an elementary, middle and high school in south Oklahoma City, added more than 600 students across all grade levels from 2014 to 2015. More than 90 percent of its students are Hispanic and English language learners, and nearly all qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
“We’ve got classrooms in old racquet ball rooms and a dance hall and a hardware store and everywhere else we can have kids,” said Brewster, the superintendent. “Facilities are our number one issue.” The school still has a waiting list.
John Rex Charter Elementary in downtown Oklahoma City grew its student population by 19 percent in the fall of 2015, its second school year in operation.
Not all charters are experiencing growth, however. Enrollment at KIPP Tulsa and KIPP Reach in Oklahoma City dipped 16.2 percent and 3.3 percent, respectively, education department data shows. Enrollment at Seeworth Academy, one of the state’s oldest charter schools, was down 7.4 percent.
Nationwide, student enrollment in public charters has grown by 62 percent over five years; 45 districts have charter-school enrollment of 20 percent or more. Thirteen percent of students in Oklahoma City Public Schools now attend a charter, according to an analysis by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
It’s unclear whether the charter growth will continue at the same pace during the next several years.
Although charter schools have become attractive alternatives in parts of urban areas, expansion in rural communities could prove more difficult because of sparser populations and the presence of many small districts. Also, when the Legislature opened the door last year for expansion beyond the largest cities, it also toughened the school application process. An application now must include a detailed start-up plan, financial plan and plans for serving students with disabilities, English language learners and academically struggling students.
Charter schools already must maintain state accreditation and be accountable to their sponsors, most of which are school districts or universities. They remain exempt from many state regulations, such as minimum teacher pay and teacher certification and tenure.
The new law also makes it easier for the state to close underperforming charters.
Nevertheless, there are signs of mounting interest.
Twice a year, the state Education Department holds a training session for anyone interested in the regulations and procedures for establishing a charter school. At the most recent one on March 1, about 30 people attended, department officials said.
Among the attendees were several representatives from charter-school groups in other states who are seeking sponsors for new schools in Oklahoma, said Bill Weldon, interim superintendent at Seminole Public Schools. He attended the session because he has heard there is an effort in his community to establish a charter school.
“It was more or less a defense mechanism,” he said of his attendance.
Weldon said his district is trying to survive potentially drastic state funding cuts to schools. He worries if a charter opens in his area, it would attract Seminole students and his enrollment would drop.
He noted that the Seminole High School building was condemned last summer, so he moved students into a temporary space and is seeking help from a bond initiative to fund a new school.
"We’re all in survival mode in public schools right now anyway, with budget cuts and trying to make the best of it," Weldon said.