9 Investigates: Virtual Charter Schools Become Stronghold In Oklahoma Education, Receive Millions In Funding
OKLAHOMA CITY - Zero to 29,000 in under ten years.
That describes the astounding increase in enrollment at Epic Charter Schools since it first went online for the 2011-2012 school year, and is one reason the school district has received so much attention, both positive and negative.
Many families, happy with their Epic experiences, spread the word to others, which helped generate the statewide virtual charter school's nearly exponential growth. But that growth, in turn, aroused suspicions and brought scrutiny and disbelief.
In the short term, Epic remains in the shadow of an OSBI investigation into allegations of embezzlement and fraud; long term, the charter school is facing some uncertainty as elected leaders are pushing for changes in how virtual charter schools are funded and also the level of oversight to which they are subjected.
"Epic isn't a typical virtual school," said Shelly Hickman, Assistant Superintendent, "in some states we wouldn't even be considered a virtual school."
Epic Charter Schools offer a blend of online learning and one-on-one instruction, an intriguing learning model that, unofficially, has propelled Epic to the third largest district in the state, based on preliminary enrollment numbers for the current school year. Among those enrolling are students who were being bullied in their former schools, are dealing with unique family situations, or just need more flexibility.
"It runs the gamut," Hickman noted, "but I believe it just shows that there's a segment of the population that doesn't believe that one size fits all."
Education leaders across the state acknowledge the need for schools like Epic.
"I have no problem with virtual instruction, it is needed in our culture today," said Sen. Ron Sharp, R-Shawnee, "the problem is the funding."
State Senator Sharp, a former school teacher, has been a vocal critic of Epic and wants to change the way statewide virtual charter schools are funded in Oklahoma. Sharp believes funding for virtual schools should be tied to student progress.
"The child takes the course, the vendor is paid as the child progresses," Sen. Sharp stated. "Final payment is made when the course is completed."
Sharp introduced legislation, SB 54, that would have implemented such a system last session, but the bill never got a hearing.
Epic officials oppose Sharp's proposal, wondering why such a standard wouldn't be applied to all schools.
"When Mr. Sharp was a teacher," Hickman stated, "if he had students who didn't engage or do their homework, or transferred or failed, he still got paid his contract salary and his employer was still funded by the state of Oklahoma. Why should Epic teachers be treated differently?"
Currently, like most traditional brick and mortar public schools, virtual charter schools receive state aid. There are important differences in the way the aid is calculated, as well as, in the way it is spent. Because Oklahoma law allows charter schools to operate as for-profit businesses, they have greater freedom to use taxpayer dollars for non-traditional expenses.
This past summer, in an effort to counter what Ms. Hickman says was misinformation stemming from the OSBI investigation, Epic spent $2.4 million on advertising, including $1.58 million on television ads, many of which aired on News 9.
"We spend less than one percent of all funds on public awareness," Hickman explained. "We have never advertised before this school year, but there was an unprecedented amount of misinformation about our school that was occurring during that same period of time."
Critics saw the expense as unfortunate.
"That's a lot of money," said Sen. Sharp, "that's your taxpayer dollars that could be going into educating children."
In all, Oklahoma's five statewide virtual charter schools got $90 million in state aid last year. $70 million of that went to Epic's virtual charter school, known as Epic One-on-One. Epic Blended, which offers students a physical location with classrooms and which is considered a brick and mortar charter, got $43 million, giving the district $113 million in total state aid, second only to the Oklahoma City Public School District.
Epic officials say that's very misleading because, unlike OKCPS and other brick and mortar school districts, they don't get any local funding (from property taxes) and don't have the ability to bond.
"You need to look at it per student to be able to understand how resources are being allocated," Hickman pointed out, "and that's a little over five-thousand [dollars] per student, which ranks us at the bottom of the state."
But, without buses, textbooks, or athletics, and few buildings to maintain, many say that's as it should be. In fact, as was made clear at an interim study at the Capitol this summer, some feel state aid funding for virtual charters should be reduced further.
Oklahoma's top educator appreciates the important role that virtual charter schools are playing, but she says it does concern her that they are allowed to use public education funds for private gain.
"To see those dollars being used, not to recruit new teachers with advertising dollars, but aggressively recruiting students to build a business," said State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister, "that is the piece that I think is difficult to square -- that's what I have a problem with."
Hofmeister worries that some virtual charter schools may be putting profit before education: using thousand-dollar 'learning' or 'e' funds to entice students to transfer without fully considering the ramifications.
Last school year, according to State Department of Education data, between the Oklahoma City and Tulsa public school districts, 878 students transferred to Epic Charter Schools during the August-January time frame. 397 Epic students transferred back to the two districts within that same time frame.
"We know that it is not best for children to be moving many times during a year," Superintendent Hofmeister said, "in fact, we know from children who are in foster care, one move is a six-month setback, academically."
We asked Rebecca Wilkinson, Executive Director of the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board, to comment on these concerns. She declined to do an interview and instead sent this one-sentence statement: "The Statewide Virtual Charter School Board has not taken an official position on any potential legislative changes to state funding or any other requirements for statewide virtual charter schools."
It's not clear yet what, if any, action the Legislature will take next session. Rep. Emily Virgin, D-Norman, is among those who would like to see stricter oversight for Epic and all virtual charter schools. But she also recognizes that there is a reason these schools have seen such a surge in popularity, and she says she and her colleagues share the responsibility for that.
"We're not funding our traditional public schools appropriately," said Rep. Virgin, "and we're creating this problem that virtual charter schools have stepped in to address.'
Epic officials agree. They argue, rather than using tax dollars for questionable purposes, they are optimizing public funds -- providing quality education at a fraction of the cost of traditional public schools.
"And that should be something that lawmakers should be looking at and applauding," said Epic's Hickman, "versus trying to find a way to cut that funding."