OKLAHOMA CITY, Oklahoma – The Oklahoma State Board of Education voted to terminate its sponsorship of Sovereign Community School at the monthly meeting Jan. 26. Sovereign is a charter school authorized by the State Board of Education that opened in 2019.
The charter school operates in the Oklahoma City Public School district with an Indigenous focused curriculum. However, the charter school is public and non discriminatory.
The state education department’s new general counsel, Bryan Cleveland, recommended a hearing for Sovereign to present its case after the school year ends.
Before leaving her position, Agency Staff and former Oklahoma State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister recommended termination in December.
The termination is the result of low-performance levels of the school in many areas. Charter school officials were expecting high enrollment levels, which were vastly overestimated. The school’s revenue was not enough to maintain the staff that was hired.
The board claims the school holds a major debt with the state. In December, the board made a statement claiming the debt to be $500,000.
State officials are curious as to why Native tribes are not stepping in to sponsor the indigenous-focused school.
Charter school board president Kendra Wilson-Clements said her numbers aren’t adding up to the $500,000 the state mentioned. She said she has discussed potential donations with tribal nations and with two of the school’s lenders to extend return payment on existing loans.
This is the third time the school has received termination recommendations from the education department with more than three years of probation status.
It was board member Trent Smith who made the motion to terminate. He stated the reputation of the department and board has started to come into question. “It’s like are they only giving incredible leniency to this school because it’s a charter when they haven’t had that leniency for public schools?”
Board member Donald Burdick cast the lone vote against termination.
In an executive summary report from OKC Public Schools Instructional Leadership Director William Stubbs, it had been predetermined that the schools were insufficient. The school did not meet criteria scores.
If the school could find a sponsor, it could remain open. The board seemingly agreed upon the unlikelihood of that happening.
Before the board meeting, state education department staff visited the school. According to a memo from the agency’s general council, Sovereign lacked documentation to verify its finances and student attendance.
Results of 2022 testing showed that fewer than 15 percent of the students scored on their grade level.
The school has not had an easy stint in its short three-year history. Shortly after its opening in 2020 the COVID-19 Pandemic erupted, resulting in a financial downward spiral. Without resources or finances, the school had issues with virtual learning provisions for students.
“We had no business, honestly, operating or starting up school,” Wilson-Clements said.
The new Superintendent of Public Instruction, Ryan Walters claims to be a supporter of “high-performing charter schools”.
He said taxpayers should be able to pick where their kids go to school.
“We should have the most comprehensive school choice in the country,” Walters said.
Walters is pushing for private school vouchers funded with taxpayer dollars, a motion that Governor Kevin Stitt supports.
At the board of education meeting in February, Walters mentioned a goal of his newly formed committee is to “advise and recommend guidance to local school systems on how to protect every student and parent’s freedom to worship,”. This was in response to a request from a group advocating for public prayer in schools.
He also proposed a rule requiring school employees to tell parents about any observed changes in a student’s sexual orientation or gender identity, and to remove sexual education materials if a parent objects. Schools could risk a downgrade in accreditation if in violation.
During a budget hearing at the Oklahoma State Capitol shortly after his inauguration, Walters opted not to present a new budget plan, instead questioning “what Joe Biden is doing to our classroom,” and what might be required of schools that accept federal dollars for education.
Walters has also not yet filled the position of a federal programs director for the OK State Department of Education with deadlines quickly approaching. The position became vacant when Walters was inaugurated.
“With federal grant application deadlines looming, Oklahoma school superintendents are worried about having these critical dollars to continue to serve the needs of their students,” the lawmakers said in a joint statement. “Without these dollars, students will lack vital classroom instructional materials and supplies, and many will go hungry.”
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, Oklahoma received $787.3 million in federal education funding in fiscal year 2020; the state contribution that year was $3.7 billion. Combined together with roughly $3 billion in local revenue, it provided $7.6 billion for education that year.
Native American children and families have more options available for education with many federally and tribally-funded boarding schools across the country.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs and Indian Education are currently working to build upon the facilities making sure quality care and education is given to these Indigenous families.
Sovereign is set to permanently close its doors on June 30, but the school will have the opportunity to present its case between now and its closure.
This is a developing story.