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State senate bill could block use of state funds for school advertising

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An Oklahoma lawmaker seeks to ban school districts and charter schools from using state funds for advertising and marketing.

State Sen. Ron Sharp, R-Shawnee, filed Senate Bill 1153 on Monday for consideration in the next legislative session, which begins Feb. 3.

The bill would be especially prohibitive for charter schools, which receive most of their funding from state aid and have no access to local tax sources. Epic Charter Schools has become known across Oklahoma for spending millions on TV, print and radio advertising.

If SB 1153 passes, any public, charter or virtual charter school that violates the ban would have to pay the amount spent on advertising and marketing plus 10% to the Oklahoma State Department of Education.

Under the measure, any person found guilty of spending state dollars on school advertising would be convicted of a misdemeanor, with a maximum punishment of a $1,000 fine and a year in county jail.

The ban wouldn’t apply to advertising employment opportunities, informational material for school bond elections, maintaining school websites, or distributing flyers and brochures about enrollment.

SB 1153 is one of several bills from Sharp that could affect virtual charter schools, including the oversight and funding formula for virtual charters. Most of those bills will carry over from the last legislative session.

The deadline for lawmakers to file bills is Jan. 16.

Traditional public schools and charter schools are allowed to budget for advertising and marketing.

Charter schools often rely on advertising and marketing to recruit new students. Children are automatically zoned to public schools based on their home address, but often must apply or enter a lottery if they are to enroll in a charter school. Some charters allow enrollment to any student who lives within a specific academic enterprise zone.

Epic Charter Schools has become the most prominent example of school advertising in Oklahoma. Epic, the state’s largest virtual charter school, spent at least $2.48 million on advertising in 2019. State records are unclear how much Epic spent in total.

A spokeswoman for Epic said the virtual charter purchased a $2.48 million media buy, which included 12 weeks of advertising spots across Oklahoma. This amount accounted for less than 1% of Epic’s budget in each fiscal year and will be spread across two fiscal years, a spokeswoman told The Oklahoman.

State schools Superintendent Joy Hofmeister has criticized Epic for high spending on advertising while its students have shown poor academic performance.

The state Department of Education graded Epic’s online school system, known as Epic One on One, at a C for its elementary and middle schools and a D for its high school on 2018-19 state report cards. Epic’s blended learning centers, which provide physical learning spaces in Tulsa and Oklahoma City, also received C’s and D’s.

While speaking with reporters in July, Hofmeister said Epic exceeded an “appropriate use” of advertising.

“I find it a clash with the for-profit model and the public-service model in this instance,” she said. “I don’t like seeing dollars used in advertising to recruit new students and grow exponentially when school performance isn’t as successful for all kids that are attending that school. But, is that unlawful? Does that need to change? Perhaps.”

Sharp has been an outspoken critic of Epic and virtual charter schools. Epic recently filed a libel and slander lawsuit against the state senator over his public statements on its attendance policies.

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Nuria Martinez-Keel

Nuria Martinez-Keel joined The Oklahoman in 2019. She found a home at the newspaper while interning in summer 2016 and 2017. Nuria returned to The Oklahoman for a third time after working a year and a half at the Sedalia Democrat in Sedalia,... Read more ›