Weekly Opinion Editorial
by Steve Fair
The largest public-school system in Oklahoma is an on-line virtual school model. Epic Charter Schools is fully accredited by the state of Oklahoma. According to their website: “Epic Charter Schools combines the convenience of online learning with the support of one-on-one instruction from an Oklahoma certified teacher. This blended learning model allows students and families to set their own pace with the guidance and instruction from an Epic Charter Schools teacher who meets with them face-to-face as needed.” Epic reportedly has over 40,00 students across Oklahoma and a staff of over 2,000. Epic is a for profit school management company that does business across the nation running charter schools. Epic receives about $90 million annually from Oklahoma taxpayers to provide education for the students enrolled in the charter school. It is governed by a five(5) member board of education that conduct monthly meetings.
The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation(OSBI) began an investigation after it was reported Epic was using taxpayer’s dollars to pay for students’ extracurricular expenses and reporting them to the state as ‘instructional.’ In July, Governor Kevin Stitt ordered Oklahoma State Auditor and Inspector Cindy Byrd to conduct a forensic audit of Epic. Byrd found that about 1 in 4 taxpayer dollars Epic received as a public school went to the co-founder’s for-profit company. She also found Epic exceeded the 5% maximum for administrative fees for school districts and used some Oklahoma taxpayer monies for a school in California. Byrd estimated Epic owes the state $11 million dollars.
Epic Charter Schools Superintendent Bart Banfield said, "It's no secret we dispute some of the findings and have requested through an open records request the Auditor’s work papers to review their calculations so we can go beyond our initial audit response to exercise our due process and debunk these calculations.” Last Monday, the state board of Education met to discuss the audit and voted unanimously to demand Epic repay $11 million within 60 days.
The OSBI affidavit alleges Epic’s co-founders, Ben Harris and David Chaney, illegally pocketed $10 million over five years by enrolling so-called “ghost students.” They alleged recruited private school and home school students so Epic could receive the per-pupil funding each public school receives. Rather than participating in Epic classes, the “ghost students” continued with traditional homeschooling and private education and received little to no instruction from Epic. OSBI also claims teachers allegedly received bonuses for keeping “ghost students” enrolled. The warrant also says parents were incentivized by Epic’s Learning Fund, from which parents would receive between $800 and $1,000 per child to be used for extracurricular activities of their choice.
Clearly, there should have been more accountability and oversight of Epic? Board members at Epic- Oklahoma, Oklahoma state education board members, and the State Superintendent of Public Instruction must all shoulder some of the responsibility for Epic’s misconduct. The largest school district in the state should not be able to misuse 25% of the tax money they receive and it not be detected. Perhaps the lack of oversight is because the Epic co-owners are politically connected? In the last eight years, Chaney and Harris have contributed over $250,000 to candidates in Oklahoma, most of them Republican. Offering parents and students school choice other than their local public school is a good thing, but Epic has been an epic failure.