OKLAHOMA CITY -- Over the past five years, Robert Ruiz, executive director of ChoiceMatters, has tried to help thousands of parents in what he describes as underserved communities find schools that best fit their children's needs.
Parents want their students to continue to attend public school, but in better performing districts. He said they struggle to navigate the state's complex open transfer rules, and often are turned away from districts that say they're at capacity, Ruiz said.
The only time students are usually able to transfer is for safety reasons, he said. One girl was granted a transfer after she was told to carry drugs in her backpack at her old school; another student was assaulted every day after class at his old school. Even then, both students were only able to transfer to equally low-performing schools, he said.
School choice advocates say they have been fighting unsuccessfully for years to make the public school transfer process more transparent and easier to navigate, but now the COVID-19 pandemic has turned into an unwitting ally of sorts as thousands of parents -- from both high performing and low performing districts -- have suddenly found themselves trying to navigate transfer regulations as they try to move to districts offering in-person instruction.
Now, under increased pressure from both the business community and parents, lawmakers are looking at overhauling the transfer requirements that districts rely on to help control class sizes.
"You've got a bunch of angry parents who are stuck," said Chad Warmington, president of the State Chamber. "The transfer process is murky at best and not really easy to navigate."
Warmington said his organization has always championed education reform, but is now focusing on helping students who attend "failing schools" -- those that have received an "F" on their state-issued report cards. He said the vast majority of those schools are in Oklahoma or Tulsa counties and educate Oklahoma's minority populations.
"It doesn't seem right that the population that probably can least afford to have a poor public education gets trapped in a school with really no other options," he said. "And so for us, it checked the box for us trying to do our part in the business community to lean on these social issues."
Warmington said that when Colorado expanded its transfer options, nearly 30% of students left Denver schools within the first few years in favor of better performing suburban schools. After about eight years, students began to migrate back after the district became more competitive.
"I think for us, it's kind of a nose under the tent," he said. "You've got to empower parents to start making the decision so they can vote with where they're moving their kid, and hopefully the school districts will respond."
But school districts face challenges when students come and go, including the loss of funding, a lack of academic stability and increased class sizes.
Proposed legislation would allow a student to move six times over three years simply because they don't like a school or it is not performing up to their satisfaction.
Sean McDaniel, superintendent of Oklahoma City Public Schools, the state's largest traditional school district, said the debate has left school leaders in a "funky mindset" right now, trying to figure out what's fueling this.
"Why is there such a mad rush to get all of this done right now?" he asked. "We're coming out of a pandemic. We've had some unbelievable natural disasters. This seems like a really odd time to be trying to put our foot on the gas legislatively, to make these kind of significant changes to the common education landscape."
McDaniel, whose district has a number of underperforming schools, said they're in the middle of working on solutions to close achievement gaps, but all that could be in jeopardy if lawmakers overhaul transfer rules.
"When you start tinkering with a school's finances, then what happens as a result, we have to begin eliminating or reducing programs, our class sizes increase, our curriculum offerings are reduced, and so we begin going backward," he said.
McDaniel also said one legislative proposal attempts to define a school's capacity simply by taking the number of students divided by full-time instructors. It does not take into account classroom size or that a teacher's aide could be assisting in a class.
"The reality is (under the Republican plans), we're going to siphon off the most motivated kids in those more engaged families, we're going to send them to another school, and we're going to suck the lifeblood out of those struggling schools," said state Rep. Andy Fugate, D-Del City.
He's proposed his own school transfer bill. It allows anyone who attends a school that receives a "D" or "F" to transfer with no restrictions. It provides funding for schools that lose students, and a 50% multiplier for districts that take them to try to partially offset taxpayer expenses.
State Rep. Brad Boles, R-Marlow, and State Sen. Adam Pugh, R-Edmond, who are also proposing changes, did not return messages left seeking comment.
It wasn't clear how many students would attempt to change districts if transfer requirements were loosened, and the State Department of Education couldn't say how many students transferred districts the past three years.
Shawn Hime, executive director of the state School Boards Association, said there are an estimated 30,000 successful transfers a year. About 2,000 people apply and are rejected.
Under existing law, Hime said the receiving district's school board has final authority on whether to accept a transfer student. It also sets school capacity limits. That's in part because local leaders better understand their students, facilities and staffing limitations, and also because local property taxes pay for things such as new schools, buses and technology.
Hime said local boards believe they should continue to have final authority to determine capacity, but are interested in working with legislative leaders to eliminate an emergency transfer provision, which would open the door for year-round transfers if capacity allows.
Modifying the existing transfer law wouldn't change existing eligibility requirements for athletes or fine arts students.
Tom Deighan, superintendent of Duncan Public Schools, which has about 3,100 students, said transfers are pretty common and usually occur by mutual agreement. Most districts want families who want to be there.
But local districts need to continue to be able to control the transfer process.
In the state's smallest districts, one or two students transferring in can really impact a district in a profound way, he said.
"I'm really concerned with rural and small districts," he said. "The transfers have a huge impact on them. It can be a very tricky issue on their local level. And, so I just urge legislators to be very cautious and understand the ramifications of any changes."
Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.