Charter schools could expand again if a bill passed out of the Senate Education Committee on Monday survives this legislative session. Sen. Glenn Coffee, R-Oklahoma City and co-president pro tempore, proposed a bill that would allow federally recognized American Indian tribes to sponsor charter schools. Last session, legislators approved a measure allowing universities to do the same. But attempts to encourage more charters are taking place under the weight of a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the original law. "I question the basis of the lawsuit,” Coffee said. "I think the concept is sound and I'm for moving forward.” Coffee said charters give parents and students more choices and more opportunities. And while no one asked him to sponsor the bill, Coffee said tribal leaders like Cherokee Chief Chad Smith and Chickasaw Gov. Bill Anoatubby have expressed interest in the idea. Smith said other Cherokee Nation officials want to partner with local school districts in Tahlequah to establish a school to advance the Cherokee language. About 6,500 people still speak the Cherokee language, he said, but nearly all of them are more than 50 years old. The tribe has established a language immersion school in Tahlequah for about 60 students in prekindergarten through the second grade. A Cherokee-sponsored charter school, if the law ultimately allows one, would be open to non-Cherokee students if required by law but would maintain its Cherokee language focus, Smith said.
Challenge to chartersThirteen school districts currently can allow charters under the law, but Tahlequah is not among those districts, according to the state Education Department. Coffee said he doesn't know if he'll be able to get the votes right now to expand the bill to include places like Tahlequah. "We work in incrementalism in this building,” he said. If the Legislature votes to allow tribes to sponsor charters but doesn't expand the geographical boundaries where they can be established, Smith said the Cherokee Nation will wait it out. "We don't have the resources and the infrastructure to do something in Tulsa at this time,” Smith said. The geographical limits on charters are actually the basis for the lawsuit, which was filed by Tulsa Public Schools in December. It alleges the charter school law violates the Oklahoma Constitution because it qualifies as a "special law” for unfairly singling out certain districts that are required to consider charter school applications.