OKLAHOMA CITY — The Oklahoma State Department of Education is proceeding as normal with accreditation and state funding for Oklahoma’s largest online school operator, despite ongoing state and federal law enforcement investigations.
At its monthly meeting, the State Board of Education approved Epic Charter Schools’ accreditation for 2019-2020 along with the full slate of public schools across the state.
Afterward, State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister told reporters she had consulted with Ricky Adams, the director of the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, about whether Epic should continue to be included in the distribution of state aid dollars for the new fiscal year when monthly payments begin on Aug. 1.
“The word we heard back (from OSBI) was, ‘Keep moving as normal,’ ” Hofmeister said.
Hofmeister also said her state agency needs greater powers to better oversee and hold virtual schools to account in her first in-depth remarks on the matter. She said she will continue to advocate for legislation that would bring one of Epic’s sponsors, the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board, under the auspices of the state Department of Education.
And, she thinks her agency could keep closer tabs on questions involving virtual schools’ board members and payments to vendors if lawmakers gave it the same subpoena power that more than 50 other state agencies already have.
Last week, the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation filed public court documents revealing allegations of embezzlement, obtaining money by false pretenses and racketeering at Epic, which is the state’s fastest-growing online school system.
OSBI is actively investigating allegations that Epic has wrongly obtained millions of taxpayer dollars by leaving students on its rolls long after they stopped attending and enrolling students from home schools and private schools who received little or no instruction by Epic.
That reportedly included the so-called “dual enrollment” of many students in both a private school and Epic, without the knowledge or consent of their parents.
On Friday, Gov. Kevin Stitt requested an investigative audit of Epic and its related entities by State Auditor Cindy Byrd and Hofmeister said she supported the move.
Asked why the request wasn’t made sooner, Hofmeister responded that as the Tulsa World’s reporting revealed, her department had been cooperating for years with investigators from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and from the Office of Inspector General, which is the law enforcement arm of the U.S. Department of Education, and “didn’t want to impede” those investigations.
State Sen. Ron Sharp, R-Shawnee, had requested that the state halt payments to Epic, amid new revelations about the law enforcement investigations. Sharp himself has publicly questioned how Epic could have received millions of dollars in state funding the last two years for 3,000-4,000 students in middle and high school when the Blended Learning Centers in which they are enrolled can only accommodate students in early education and elementary school grades.