From TV and radio ads to the steady flow of news stories, it has been difficult to ignore Epic Charter Schools lately. With multiple ongoing investigations into the school’s finances and enrollment, here is a comprehensive look at what has transpired and what it could mean for future state policy.
Two recent search warrants filed in Oklahoma County show the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation believes Epic Charter Schools and its management company were set up with the intention of profiting from state tax dollars.
In the first warrant, OSBI’s investigator alleged that Epic’s founders, Ben Harris and David Chaney, illegally pocketed $10 million over five years by enrolling so-called “ghost students.” These are private school and home school students who were ostensibly recruited so Epic could receive the per-pupil funding each public school receives.
Rather than participating in the publicly-funded virtual charter school, the investigator wrote the “ghost students” continued with traditional homeschooling and private education, receiving “little to no instruction from Epic.” Teachers allegedly received bonuses for keeping “ghost students” enrolled. The warrant also says parents were incentivized by Epic’s Learning Fund, from which parents would receive between $800 and $1,000 per child to be used for extracurricular activities of their choice.
The second warrant shows the scope of OSBI’s investigation has widened to include the school’s chief financial officer and some current and former board members.
Public records obtained by Jennifer Palmer at Oklahoma Watch and Andrea Eger at the Tulsa World indicate that Epic is also being investigated by federal authorities for similar issues.
How Could Something Like This Happen?
Virtual charter schools are mostly regulated by a separate agency, the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board, but verifying enrollment falls to the State Dept. of Education. To do this, a unique number is assigned to each public school student to track their enrollment from year to year. Private or homeschooled students, however, are not required to register with the state government, so they would not show up in routine audits designed to detect dual enrollment.
“We do not have at the state level a list of homeschool students or private school students,” said Supt. of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister in July. “So, if indeed what is being alleged and investigated is true, there isn’t a mechanism to be able to cross check-information and certify that what they [Epic Charter Schools] report is accurate.”
In other words, the education department doesn’t have the data to weed out students that are dually or falsely enrolled in homeschool or private school as well as a virtual charter school.
Epic Denies Wrongdoing. But What Do Parents Think?
Epic Charter Schools has released many statements saying they are confident they will come out of these investigations clean, and Epic remains very popular among parents.
Amanda Cole lives in Norman, Oklahoma. Her son recently graduated from Epic, and she has a daughter enrolled at the virtual school. She also moderates the largest Epic Charter Schools parent Facebook group.
“I clearly have not been a witness to any of the things I’ve seen them [David Chaney and Ben Harris] accused of,” Cole said. “I don’t think there was any bad intentions.I get so offended when I hear people say the founders are only in it for the money because they aren’t.
Cole can’t speak for all Epic parents, but her sentiments toward the investigation and the media are echoed by many of the parents who are active on the Facebook page.
Cole also believes media coverage of Epic Charter Schools has been “slanted.”
“I think people are looking for negative. They’re trying to twist things as much as they can,” Cole said.
Epic Charter Schools’ enrollment continues to grow, and it now rivals some of the largest school districts in the state, like Edmond and Moore, in terms of student count.
Where Do We Go From Here?
The individuals currently under investigation by state and federal law enforcement could eventually face charges. The search warrant lists possible crimes from embezzlement to forgery and violating a law that prohibits public dollars from supporting private and home education.
Once OSBI concludes an investigation, the agency delivers a report to a prosecuting authority. In this particular case, that would be Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater. It is then up to the prosecutor to decide whether or not to press charges. OSBI does not make any recommendations. A previous investigation into Epic that began with a directive from former Gov. Mary Fallin did not result in charges.
If charges were to result in convictions, it is unclear whether the school would continue to operate. Oklahoma has only shut down one virtual charter school. The director of the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board, Rebecca Wilkinson, said ABLE Charter School had inadequate financial reporting and organizational problems when it closed in 2016. Wilkinson declined to comment on Epic while they are under investigation.
More about Epic Charter Schools’ operations could come out during the course of investigations, and Gov. Kevin Stitt recently called for an investigative audit of Epic, which will also generate a public report. These details may generate stronger political will to pass new virtual charter school regulations, something that proved difficult during the last legislative session.
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