BY JOHN THOMPSON
Even many of the staunchest pro-charter corporate reformers are criticizing virtual charters for their poor outcomes and draining resources from public schools. For instance, Todd Ziebarth of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, criticizes the high rates of “churn” they contribute to, their low graduation rates, and low levels of student proficiency growth. Online charters don’t need to accept the costs that brick and mortar schools must fund, but fair is fair, and virtual schools like Oklahoma’s Epic charters also need to find money for expenses that neighborhood schools aren’t burdened with.
Ziebarth notes that their poor performance means that virtual charters must find other ways to grow. They must pay for their “aggressive marketing” campaigns. For instance, Tulsa Public Radio reports, “Epic uses giveaways of big-ticket items like concert tickets to reward referrals, and it recently opened a heavily branded children’s play area at [Oklahoma City’s] Penn Square Mall.”
And recently, Epic supporters were forced to spend $180,000 for the 2018 political campaign season. Co-founder Ben Harris said that the reason why Epic ramped up donationswas “we kinda felt like it was us against the entire traditional education establishment.”
I kid the private charter “juggernaut” leader. But, seriously, he may be facing more unanticipated operating costs. Until recently Epic has successfully evaded efforts to hold the virtual charters accountable. Republican Sen. Ron Sharp became so frustrated at trying to obtain meaningful data on Epic’s performance that he used a wonky state-of-the-art research term to characterize the quality of their numbers; he said, “This is crap.”
After Epic Superintendent David Chaney was criticized for “skewing” the data, Chaney replied that they just did things “differently.”
But more costs may be coming to the virtual charter. A previous investigation into 2013 allegations of fraud by the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation was turned over to the Attorney General’s Office, but no charges were filed and no official conclusions were announced. But the Tulsa World’s Andrea Eger reports that the OSBI is “once again” investigating Epic, so it is “now the target of scrutiny by state and federal law enforcement in addition to state lawmakers.”
Apparently Epic is being investigated for dually enrolling students who attend private schools. Eger reports that charter authorizers are provided a contract template which “specifically prohibits the funding or offering of any instruction to home-schooled students or private school students.” It also explains that “charter schools ‘shall implement and enforce policies and procedures prohibiting enrollment of students on a part time basis,’ with one or two limited exceptions allowed under state law.”
Epic’s Harris responded to questions on whether it is illegal to be paid for educating students attending other private schools by saying, “Not to our knowledge. And I would also say that we’re not aware of the specific situations that you’re talking about. It’s hard to imagine how they could fulfill our requirements while going to another school full time.”
Harris also told the World, “We don’t think that our private company should have to make any disclosures that any other private company shouldn’t have just because who our customers are.” Eger explained however, that Epic’s co-founders are “both owners of Epic Youth Services LLC, a separate company with which the school contracts for its operation. That contract indicates an annual cost of $125,000 for ‘development services’ plus a 10% share of the school’s collected revenues as an ‘indirect cost allocation.’”
Eger “put that 10% into context,” explaining that “Epic Charter Schools has been allocated $112.9 million in state aid funding alone for fiscal year 2019.
Ironically, one of the institutions where potential misdeeds are being exposed is Facebook! The World reported:
Shelly Hickman, the school’s assistant superintendent for external affairs, then acknowledged that she had participated in an Epic parent Facebook group discussion just last week in which multiple Epic parents openly discussed how their children were enrolled in private schools and home school cooperatives and even receive credit from their Epic teachers for time spent and work done in those outside entities.
Despite its generous donations to 78 candidates for the Legislature and state offices, pressure has increased since an interim legislative committee was unable to pry meaningful information from Epic this fall. Then Epic received $38.7 million in annual, midyear adjustments, as the Oklahoma City [OKCPS] and Tulsa [TPS] districts each faced $2.1 million in cuts. Tulsa Superintendent Deborah Gist, a longtime school choice advocate, complained that her district lost 496 students to Epic in the fall semester, as 196 Epic students returned to the TPS.
It won’t be easy to find understandable accountability information in the new Oklahoma Report Cards, but now that the press that is doing a great job in investigating Epic’s finance, they might also find readers interested in the virtual schools accountability data. In 2018, two Epic districts, Epic One on One Charter and Epic Blended Learning Charter, had nine schools. According to the Report Card, they enrolled 13,532. They reported test scores for 4,164 students or about 30% of their enrollees.
Despite their huge attrition rate, the Report Card said that both systems had attendance rates exceeding 99%.
Epic One on One reported 8,059 enrollees. It isn’t easy to find a meaningful presentation of the test score progress on its 2,433 test takers, but the seemingly hidden outcomes of the minority who persist until the spring testing is shocking. About 23% progressed to higher achievement levels. About 36% of students remained on the same levels, while over 41% dropped into lower performance levels.
In theory, Epic’s Blended Learning charter would produce better outcomes. But just over 25% progressed to higher achievement level. Around 36% of students remained on the same levels, while a little over 38% dropped into lower performance levels.
Although the recent headlines have been dominated by Eger’s excellent reporting, for several years Oklahoma Watch’s Jennifer Palmer has done great investigative reporting on Epic. Until she documented Epic’s complex story, I assumed that the virtual charter was just a case of socialism for the rich, a drag on public education funding which helped some kids who were uncomfortable in public schools but which damaged many more by increasing transiency. I no longer see it as an un-slayable dragon that must be endured. And wouldn’t it be great to see Epic held accountable by today’s federal government, as well as Facebook posts?
– John Thompson is an award-winning historian who became an inner-Oklahoma City teacher after the “Hoova” set of the Crips took over his neighborhood and he became attached to the kids in the drug houses. Now retired, he is the author of A Teacher’s Tale: Learning, Loving, and Listening to Our Kids.