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Oklahoma lawmaker’s bills target charter school funding, oversight

Epic virtual charter school teacher Regina Bell helps student Eli Real, 11, of Norman, as Bell meets with students in September at Norman Central Library. [OKLAHOMAN ARCHIVES PHOTO]

Epic virtual charter school teacher Regina Bell helps student Eli Real, 11, of Norman, as Bell meets with students in September at Norman Central Library. [OKLAHOMAN ARCHIVES PHOTO]

State Sen. Ron Sharp, a longtime critic of virtual charter schools, is continuing his effort to rein in this growing sector of the state's public school system, authoring several bills ahead of the 2019 legislative session that would increase transparency and decrease funding.

“It's out of control,” said Sharp, R-Shawnee, who has filed legislation to adjust the funding formula for virtual charter schools, give the governor more authority over the state virtual charter board and require more detailed reports on attendance and student property use, such as computers.

“If we don't get better control of it this year it will be too late and our traditional public school districts are going to have such major problems.”

Sharp said the complaints he hears from school district leaders have increased each year, which Pam Deering, executive director of the Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administration, confirms.

"We are hearing from more of our member schools, particularly in the last two to three years, who say the negative impact from virtual charters continues to increase," said Deering, referring to the loss of student funding and a competition for teachers.

Virtual charter schools are public schools that receive state education funding for each student. More than 25,000 Oklahoma students are enrolled in a virtual charter school, where lessons and assignments are completed online.

Sharp believes virtual schools lack a rigorous academic experience, pointing to graduation rates and test scores below the state average.

"That's a misguided way of looking at what we do because our students are coming to us on average two years behind and we are getting most of them to graduate," said Shelly Hickman, assistant superintend of Epic Virtual Charter School, which has more than 21,000 students.

"Just this past June we got 1,400 seniors across the (graduation) line,” she said.

Epic does not describe itself as an alternative school, but teachers say it operates like one.

Forty-one percent of Epic students left their previous school because they were victims of bullying, according to a survey last year.

"Many of my students really lacked joy when it came to school and learning, but that's changing when they come here," said Regina Bell, a first-year teacher at Epic. "I think there are many kids here where this might be their last chance.”

But some school district leaders complain virtual charter students return midyear without the attached state funding.

"All districts funded with state appropriated funds are impacted by the funds that do not return back with the student mid-way through the year," said April Grace, superintendent of Shawnee Public Schools, who said she has seen more students come and go to virtual charters in recent years.

“When those students return we often do not get adequate records to determine progress or academic status for the student. And students are often behind academically when they return.”

Hickman said Epic also receives students after the official enrollment cutoff date that determines funding.

“We educate those students without receiving the state funds to do it. It goes both ways,” Hickman said.

In addition to adding students, virtual charters are also hiring more teachers, which presents many districts with another form of competition for staff.

Epic hired nearly 500 educators this year – an increase of 40 percent from last school year – from more than 100 districts across the state.

“In light of our teacher shortage this is a huge challenge for districts,” said Shawn Hime, executive director of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association.

Without many of the same building and activity costs of a traditional school, virtual charters like Epic can spend more money on salaries, which means teachers can sometimes make twice or three times what they would at a traditional public school.

“They are being funded on a brick and mortar model that has extracurricular activities and a building, and a lot of stuff (EPIC) doesn't have to pay for,” Hime said. “But I don't begrudge them for operating within the way the funding model is currently set.”

One of Sharp's bills would connect state funding for virtual schools to a student's completion of the school year, rather than beginning of the year attendance.

“We've got to find a way to provide for virtual instruction, but not at the expense of traditional public schools,” Sharp said.

Hickman said Epic will respond to legislation as it is heard next year, but she believes support remains in the Legislature.

“We are growing because there is a need,” Hickman said.

Ben Felder

Ben Felder is an investigative reporter for The Oklahoman. A native of Kansas City, Ben has lived in Oklahoma City since 2010 and covered politics, education and local government for the Oklahoma Gazette before joining The Oklahoman in 2016.... Read more ›