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Living in Dialogue: Will Oklahoma Rein In Epic Charter Failure?

As the Network for Public Education documents a billion dollars wasted on failed charter schools, the national news is full of the latest charter financial scandals stretching from New Jersey to California. We can’t forget, however, that virtual charters, like Oklahoma’s Epic for-profit charters, have the potential of producing even more harm to our poorest students. The millions of dollars invested in Epic allow adults to pretend that thousands of students have not been abandoned, merely because they have enrolled in the online school.

In March, Epic Charter School brought about 3,000 supporters to the Oklahoma Capitol in support for school choice and virtual schools. Epic’s well-funded public relations machine also filled the Capitol with the food, tee shirts, talking points, and the “swag” that has become an increasingly criticized part of the for-profit charter’s aggressive marketing” campaigns. For instanceTodd Ziebarth of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools explains that there are“very significant problems with the performance of the (virtual) schools.” He says, “One of the strategies to remaining open is making donations.” Zeibarth explains, “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.”

Epic then tried to counter criticism of its students’ outcomes with the Oklahoma Cost Effectiveness Report, FY2014-FY2016 by Robert Sommers, an ally of corporate reformer Jeb Bush, and a founder and CEO of Carpe Diem Learning Systemsheavily promoted, failed virtual charter school. 

The Oklahoma Cost Effectiveness Report is a classic example of a “paper” by an “astroturf political group, pretending to be research. Instead of offering a substantive evaluation of Oklahoma education outcomes, it merely offers graphics to illustrate political soundbites and providebranded” content for the local press. It claimed that Epic charters rank 19thin the state in cost effectiveness.

Of course, this lobbying effort is nothing new, but it seems to be less effective than it used to be. so far, House Bill 1395 by Rep. Sheila Dills, R-Tulsa, received bipartisan support in a 95-0 vote.The bill “essentially holds virtual charter schools to the same reporting and accountability standards as public schools.”

Sommers, the head of the CF Educational Solutions, LLC, used a methodology, the “Kalmus Ratio,” from the renowned research institute, Ohio’s Butler Tech. When estimating the cost effectiveness of Oklahoma schools, it used an incorrect definition of students in “poverty.” It controlled for economic disadvantage using Oklahoma’s obsolete funding formula figure of .25 per student, even though there is a bipartisan consensus that the number should at least be doubled. More importantly, the paper merely tabulates test score outcomes without controlling for learning disabilities, English Language Learners, trauma, or concentrations of extreme poverty.

What would a serious study of Epic’s costs and benefits find?

Until recently, lawmakers have focused primarily on the financial costs of Epic and other virtual schools, as opposed to the human damage they inevitably produce. Given the state’s budgetary problems, that is understandable. As Andrea Eger previously reported in the Tulsa World, both the Oklahoma City and Tulsa lost $2.1 million in midterm adjustments, as Epic received an additional $39 million.

Also in terms of reclaiming financial responsibility, a state investigation into 2013 fraud allegations was turned over to the state Attorney General’s office, but no charges were filed and no official conclusions were announced. But the World’s Eger recently reported 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.”

In terms of academic outcomes, the recent Education Week report on graduation rates was shocking. It found that 1/4thof American charter high schools and 3 percent of other schools persistently graduate less than half of their students. The number of Oklahoma students attending brick and mortar high schools with graduation rates below 50 percent is below 100. The virtual charter high schools that have a graduation rate below 50 percent are: Insight School of Oklahoma HS, Oklahoma Connections Academy HS, Oklahoma Virtual Charter Academy, and Epic One on One Charter HS.

The data isn’t easy to access, but the new Oklahoma Report Card provides the most important insights into Epic’s academic failures for most of its students. In 2018, Epic One on One Charter and Epic Blended Learning Center had nine schools. According to the Report Card, they enrolled 13,532. They reported test scores for 4,164 students or about 30 percent of their enrollees.

Even worse, less than 1/4th of Epic’s test-takers progressed to a higher achievement level, while nearly 40 percent dropped into lower performance levels.

As Epic’s enrollment approaches 24,000, financial and academic accountability becomes more important. Above all, however, we must ask what does it mean when only about one in 13 students progress to higher levels?

Epic benefits some kids but it does a mediocre or bad job of educating others, and they do terrible harm to students who fall through the cracks. Ironically, it is Zeibarth, a charter advocate who addresses the most overlooked but most important issue with virtual schools. They produce “high rates of churn,” or chronic student transiency.  Online schools offer a fig leaf to people trying to divert our attention from kids who are left behind. Schools like Epic fund the pretense that they are enrolled in more than name only in a school. Then, each time they change schools, the kids fall further and further behind.

What do you think? Which is worse, wasting scarce money on charters that produce such lousy outcomes, or claiming that students who are enrolled in name only in schools like Epic have not been left behind?

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John Thompson

John Thompson was an award-winning historian, lobbyist, and guerilla-gardener who became an award-winning inner city teacher after crack and gangs hit his neighbo...