Epic Charter Schools is under state and federal investigation. KGOU's Dick Pryor and eCapitols Shawn Ashley discuss alleged embezzlement of taxpayer dollars by Epic's founders, as well as the history of virtual charter schools in Oklahoma and how they are regulated.
Dick Pryor: This is Capitol Insider, your weekly look inside Oklahoma politics and policy. I'm Dick Pryor with eCapitol News Director Shawn Ashley. The biggest story at the capitol right now is the OSBI investigation of Epic Charter Schools. No charges have been filed, but in a search warrant affidavit the OSBI by alleged probable cause to believe the online charter school's founders illegally profited by inflating the number of students enrolled. The affidavit alleges that Epic embezzled millions of dollars in state funds through what they called "ghost students." Shawn, how did online charter schools come about in Oklahoma?
Shawn Ashley: Well, that's really an interesting question, because if you if you look at what happened in Oklahoma back in 1999 Oklahoma was looking at doing its own state-based or state-supported online school system. It was called the Virtual Internet School In Oklahoma Network or VISION, and this would have been a state-supported effort to provide online education to students throughout the state. But several years later they reversed course, and that was repealed in 2014. And in the interim what they did was working on the charter school model that had been approved in the state of Oklahoma. They began allowing these virtual charter schools to operate. Now these are generally for profit companies, private companies that provide education to students in an online environment, and those began operating in the state around 2010 timeframe.
Pryor: How did they operate? Where do they get their students?
Ashley: Well, they have to find their students, and in some cases we see that they actively recruit students from brick and mortar public schools to attend. In other instances we have students who are looking for alternatives to brick and mortar public schools. These may be student athletes who are particularly focused in an area where attending regular school doesn't necessarily work with their schedule, or they may be students with medical concerns, or perhaps disciplinary issues where working in an online environment is better than being in a brick and mortar classroom.
Pryor: There are a few online charter schools in Oklahoma, not just Epic. How were online charter schools sold initially by legislative supporters?
Ashley: Well, really it was an attempt to do was to address some of these special situations for students, whether it be the student athlete, the student who was being bullied or the student who just felt like they would work better in a different environment than the brick and mortar charter schools. At the same time, of course, though there were some reservations. There were concerns about accountability. How would we know that the student was receiving the classroom instruction that they were expected to receive? And then, of course, there was concern also tied to finances and to the quality of the instruction that they would be receiving.
Pryor: How are they regulated?
Ashley: Well it's really a bifurcated system. First, you have the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board, which establishes the requirements for the approval of their applications to be a virtual statewide charter school. But then most of the requirements for student participation and activity comes from the State Board of Education in the State Department of Education. So they're really answering to both of those. But, really, if you look at the various rules and regulations that they're required to follow the problem is they are being asked to comply with the same rules as brick and mortar public schools, but they're not. They're very different from brick and mortar public schools. You can't walk into a virtual charter school classroom and take attendance, see how many students are there or not there. You cannot easily verify whether the teacher that is teaching on a given day is certified because they may be in one town and the students in another town entirely. And, up until earlier this year, virtual statewide charter schools were not required to follow the same financial reporting requirements as brick and mortar public schools, but lawmakers passed and Governor Kevin Stitt signed House Bill 1395, which clarifies that they have to follow those same processes and procedures as brick and mortar schools.
Pryor: Some of those concerns were raised by Governor Mary Fallon's administration.
Ashley: That's correct, and, in terms of Epic Charter Schools itself, that's where the investigation began. It was Governor Mary Fallin who in 2013, responding to concerns that were being raised about its operations which were then only two years old, asked the OSBI to look into it.
Pryor: Governor Stitt wants more information about Epic specifically. What are legislators saying?
Ashley: Most legislators have been quiet. We have heard from House Democrats, who have expressed concerns on a number of different levels, and are in the end waiting to see what the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation probe reveals. Another member of the legislature, Senator Ron Sharp, has long been critical of Epic Charter Schools and has raised some of the issues that were raised in the affidavit for the search warrant submitted by the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation.
Pryor: Certainly it's an evolving story that we will be following.
Ashley: It will be an ongoing story for some time most likely.
Pryor: Thanks Shawn.
Ashley: You're very welcome.
Pryor: That's Capitol Insider. It' you have questions, email us at news@kgouorg or contact us on Twitter at @kgounews. You can also find us online at kgou.org and ecapitol.net, on Apple podcasts and Spotify. Until next time, with Shawn Ashley, I'm Dick Pryor.