A state senator is raising new questions about Epic Charter Schools, the operator of Oklahoma’s largest statewide virtual charter school and centers that blend online and in-person instruction in Tulsa and Oklahoma counties.
Sen. Ron Sharp, R-Shawnee, said he has tried in vain for nearly three months to find out 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 school’s own website and assistant superintendent have said the Blended Learning Centers they are enrolled in can only be attended by students in early education and elementary school grades.
Sharp, a member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Education, said the Oklahoma State Department of Education assured him for months that they were working on a request he submitted for public records on the matter.
Then in June, the education department’s legal counsel reportedly told him he would have to pay an $850 labor fee for those records.
“The legislature should have access to any and all financial information from the state agencies we’re entrusted to fund and oversee. The public expects us to be good stewards of their money and we must hold our state agencies, including the State Department of Education, accountable for their spending,” said Sharp in a Thursday news release.
Asked to respond, Steffie Corcoran, a spokeswoman for the education department, said: “We will be following up on the new information received today. They (Epic) have testing information for students in grades 7-12, enrollment data and a signed affidavit from the school principal approving what is the (state accreditation) compliance report.”
And Brad Clark, the department’s legal counsel, said after Sen. Sharp objected, the agency offered to “absorb the cost” of processing the request, which Clark said was for 12 years’ worth of correspondence between Epic and the state agency.
“It’s not common that we receive a request of this magnitude in both time and scope. So when we receive a request like that, it does cause an excessive disruption to this agency,” he said. “Each of those records have to be reviewed for (federal student privacy law) compliance.”
Epic One-on-One is a statewide virtual charter school sponsored by the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board. Two years ago, Epic added Blended Learning Centers, or BLCs, sponsored by Rose State College in Midwest City, that offer students a blend of online and in-person instruction in buildings located in Tulsa and Oklahoma City.
Sharp said he is questioning how Epic could have received millions of state dollars for BLC students in grades 6-12 in FY18 and grades 7-12 in FY19 when Epic’s website states that during its first year, “it only accommodated pre-K through fifth grade and pre-k through sixth grade during the 2018-19 school year.”
Epic is opening a new BLC in Midwest City for the 2019-20 academic year.
As of Thursday, Epic’s website still states “Students attending these sites must be residents of either Oklahoma or Tulsa County, respectively, and must be in grades pre-K-6 with the exception of Midwest City, which serves students in grades 7-12 only.”
Sharp attached to his press release an email from Shelly Hickman, assistant superintendent at Epic, answering a question about the matter from state senate staff on June 24.
“In 17-18, we served PK-5 in two BLC sites (one in OKC and one in Tulsa). In 18-19, we served PK-6 in three BLC sites (two in OKC and one in Tulsa),” Hickman wrote.
Sharp cited state education records he said show Epic BLC had 3,078 students enrolled in grades six through 12 the first year and 3,995 students enrolled in grades seven through 12 last school year.
“I’m just confused why they turned in enrollment numbers for grades that their website and an administrator said they didn’t provide,” Sharp said in his news release. “Perhaps this is a clerical error or an oversight but as legislators we must be good stewards of the people’s tax dollars, especially when it comes to our education system.”
Sharp alone authored nine bills earlier this year seeking new restrictions or greater accountability for the public dollars flowing to virtual charter schools, but was dismayed that many didn’t even receive a hearing before the Senate Education Committee.
He told the Tulsa World he issued a news release Thursday because he believes his question about Epic student attendance calls into question the use of millions of taxpayer dollars, and it has yet to be addressed.
“This is a totally different examination of what’s going on from the state investigation into Epic, based on what I’ve been told,” said Sharp, referring to the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation’s most recent investigation into Epic Charter Schools, last described as “active” in February by Beth Green, an OSBI assistant special agent in charge.
Asked what the state’s requirements are for BLC student attendance, Brad Clark, the state department of education’s attorney, said by law, the BLCs are subject to the same attendance requirements as traditional charter schools — not virtual charter schools.
“The statute is very clear that statewide virtual charter schools have a specific methodology for how they are to adopt their policy for reporting and calculating attendance and that is different than what is required for a brick and mortar school,” Clark said.
But asked to respond, Emily Lang, with Epic’s contract public relations firm Price Lang Consulting, said that statement was wrong because all Epic students “are reported in accordance with state law as virtual charter school students.”
“Attendance for virtual students, whether or not they choose to access a blended learning center, is basically a function of whether or not students are completing their assignments,” Lang told the Tulsa World.
“There is not a separate statute governing attendance reporting for virtual students who choose to utilize a physical building. Those buildings are meant to serve as a tool for students and teachers, but their use is not required. At the outset of Epic’s partnership with Rose State College, Senator Sharp was invited to a meeting, which he declined to attend. That invitation remains open.”