WHEN Oklahoma first enacted its charter school law in 1999, fear was a common reaction. After all, other states collected horror stories of charter school operators embezzling state funds meant for kids and of schools closing up shop midyear, leaving students stranded.
Oklahoma started with an extremely conservative approach, allowing establishment of charter schools in only a few areas of the state and under relatively strict conditions. While those restrictions have been relaxed somewhat in recent years, charter schools never took off in the nightmarish way some feared.
In the past 15 years, there have been few instances of wayward charter schools. The state Education Department's website lists 25 operating charter schools. Many of those opened in the first few years after the passage of the charter school law. Some of those that developed later were merely extensions of the existing charter schools, including middle schools that expanded to include high school grades.
It's the newest version of charter schools — those of the virtual variety — that are starting to cause some heartburn. Here's some perspective. More than a decade after the establishment of the charter school law, enrollment in brick-and-mortar charter schools hasn't exactly reached a tipping point statewide. Last year, these schools enrolled about 6,600 students. The two virtual charter schools, which only opened in 2011, enrolled nearly 5,000 students.
Charter school authorizers can limit enrollment at the schools they sponsor and frequently do. Traditional charter schools face the added challenge of acquiring affordable facilities, which effectively caps enrollment. Virtual schooling has turned what Oklahomans knew as the charter school model on its head.
Graham Public Schools had about 200 students in its school buildings last year. But it also sponsors Epic One-on-One charter school, which had more than 2,200 students enrolled from across the state.
Choctaw-Nicoma Park Public Schools had more than 5,400 students enrolled in its buildings last year. It also sponsored the Oklahoma Virtual Charter Academy, which enrolled more than 2,600 students. K12 Inc., which operates the academy, has had controversy over its operations in other states.