A Tulsa lawmaker and former teacher said she was impressed by State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister’s willingness to talk about better regulating virtual schools in the wake of the Epic Charter Schools allegations.
Rep. Melissa Provenzano, D-Tulsa, met with Hofmeister at Bixby High School for about half an hour Thursday morning during the Tulsa-area stop of the Oklahoma State Department of Education’s traveling summer conference.
Both already planned to attend the event before this week’s revelation of the state’s investigation into possible embezzlement and racketeering at the largest online school in Oklahoma.
The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation alleges that Epic wrongly obtained millions of taxpayer dollars by inflating its student enrollment figures. A search warrant filed in Oklahoma County District Court this week accused Epic’s operators of unlawfully receiving $10 million in profits since 2013.
Hofmeister responded to news reports of the allegations Wednesday by saying the state Education Department is ready to “work with any criminal investigation to determine if public education and countless Oklahoma taxpayers have been defrauded of millions of dollars.”
After reading the superintendent’s statement and news release, Provenzano said she wanted to address her concerns about the Epic investigation.
“I wanted to know more specifically what she had in mind for changes that keep this sort of thing from happening, or if it does happen, we catch it much more quickly,” she said. “Because $10 million didn’t happen just in this past year, to be quite frank. This is deeply concerning.”
Provenzano said she was “pleasantly surprised” that Hofmeister was open to visiting with her to discuss how to prevent similar situations in the future.
The state representative agreed with some of the measures the superintendent’s office has proposed, such as placing the Oklahoma Virtual Charter School Board under the control of the state Education Department.
She wasn’t as fond of some other measures, such as granting subpoena power to the Education Department. Doing so, she said, could throw off the balance of power in the state government.
Both of these proposals came up during last year’s legislative session.
“I’m more interested in getting real specific with the law about how we track dollars,” Provenzano said, “and how we track enrollment data and student attendance data so that it’s more, No. 1, trackable and authentic and, No. 2, equitable across all public school platforms, whether it be a brick-and-mortar charter or a virtual school.
“They aren’t going away. They don’t need to go away,” she said of online schools. “They’re a good fit for a lot of kids and a lot of families, but with the 30% graduation rate for full-year academics that’s being reported, there’s clearly a disconnect. We have to do something, and building in extra layers of accountability has to be where we start.”
Provenzano said that when she asked Hofmeister about how state education officials could remain unaware of an alleged embezzlement and racketeering scheme for so long, the superintendent responded that they were beyond her purview.
Hofmeister was unavailable for comment Thursday evening. Her chief policy adviser, Phil Bacharach, who sat in during the meeting between Hofmeister and Provenzano, described the conversation as respectful and candid despite some disagreements.
Bacharach said the superintendent “absolutely supports” the idea of having more resources and tools to prevent fraud of public dollars. Granting subpoena power to the Education Department, he said, would help in that effort.
“The Department of Education is not an investigatory authority,” he said. “We don’t have the resources. We don’t have the directive. We don’t have the constitutional authority. Without subpoena power, absolutely nothing along those lines would have been uncovered.”
However, Bacharach said not even subpoena power would have uncovered the allegations detailed in the OSBI’s affidavit that EPIC inflated enrollment counts with students already enrolled in private schools. The Education Department lacks regulatory authority to view private school records.
Epic Charter Schools: A Tulsa World investigation