OKLAHOMA CITY — The ongoing investigation by state and federal law enforcement of Epic Charter Schools, the state’s largest virtual charter school, loomed large over lawmakers’ examinations of charter school funding and oversight policies on Wednesday.
At interim studies hosted by the House Common Education Committee, speakers said Oklahoma could look to the examples of other states that have promoted public school choice in updating state laws governing how to fund virtual charter schools and what oversight is required by charter school sponsors.
Derald Glover, assistant director at the Oklahoma Association of School Administrators, offered a comparison of how the use of Oklahoma’s school funding formula for virtual schools differs from other states that take into account the differences in “real costs” between online education and brick-and-mortar school buildings.
He pointed to states including Colorado, Georgia, Ohio and Pennsylvania that have created funding formulas specific to virtual charter schools that take into account reduced costs for such things as transportation, facility maintenance and construction.
And rather than fund virtual schools based on student counts like traditional schools, Glover said Minnesota and Florida require course completion, while Utah bases its online school funding on credits earned by students.
Speakers were asked not to specifically cite any one virtual school, though some repeatedly mentioned Epic by name and most lawmakers who asked questions referred to its practices or circumstances.
Rep. Jacob Rosencrants, D-Norman, asked whether a school being under investigation would affect how it is audited. Rebecca Wilkinson, executive director of the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board, said that would depend on the auditor.
Rep. Sheila Dills, R-Tulsa, asked Wilkinson whether she thought “all of the spending on marketing” was necessary.
Epic Charter Schools recently told the Tulsa World its most recent back-to-school advertising blitz cost nearly $2.5 million.
Wilkinson first noted that a category exists in Oklahoma’s accounting system for all public schools for such expenditures, then she said: “We don’t know that any of those funds were illegal.”
Dills pressed her for an answer to the question of whether she thought it was necessary.
“I don’t have an answer to that,” Wilkinson said.
Later, Dills asked Wilkinson whether she believes oversight of virtual charter schools’ student enrollment and attendance reports belongs to the statewide virtual board or the state Department of Education.
Wilkinson said she sees that particular oversight issue as a shared responsibility of both state agencies because state education officials are to audit student enrollment records twice each academic year and her agency does monthly checks to ensure schools aren’t “dropping students,” as they have been rumored to do.
Asked whether virtual schools’ student attendance requirements are an issue that policymakers should look at, Wilkinson agreed and said she has had concerns about Oklahoma’s minimum of 40 completed assignments.
“Not only from school to school, but from one classroom to another, that could be different,” she said.
Sen. Ron Sharp, R-Shawnee, pressed Wilkinson about whether any virtual school programs besides the ones offered by statewide virtual charter schools overseen by her board can use that kind of attendance policy.
She responded: “In my opinion, it’s only applicable to statewide virtual charter schools — only those five schools we authorize.”
Brad Clark, general counsel at the state Department of Education, told lawmakers there are also opportunities to update requirements for charter school sponsors, which in Oklahoma also include colleges and universities, local school boards, the state board of education and tribal governments.
He said one state, possibly Alabama, requires annual reports by sponsors so that they have to account for their use of their cut of the charter school’s public funds for oversight.
One of the hosts of Wednesday’s interim studies, Lundy Kiger, R-Poteau, said he believes in virtual charter schools as one public education choice in the state, “but we must have total transparency into how they receive funding per student and how that money is spent.”
“I don’t believe they should be receiving the same amount of funding as traditional public schools that have building and maintenance costs,” Kiger said. “We also must ensure the entities charged with oversight of these schools are performing due diligence and fulfilling all requirements both to the state and the students they serve.”