How does a state determine whether students on a virtual school’s rolls exist?

Oklahoma can’t.

Oklahoma investigators believe Epic Charter Schools embezzled money by inflating its enrollment with homeschool and private school students. Because of the state’s dedication to privacy, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister says the alleged abuse would not have been preventable under current state law.

The Enrollment Loophole

Virtual charter schools are taxpayer-funded public schools. Like traditional public schools, they are free to families and receive funding from the state based on student enrollment. Unlike traditional public schools, they are run by private companies or non-profits, and student instruction and coursework happen online instead of in-person.  

With over 20,000 students on the books last year, Epic is the largest virtual charter school in Oklahoma, and it appears to be exploiting a loophole in state law. 

All virtual charters are under the purview of a separate agency, the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board, but verifying enrollment falls to the State Dept. of Education.

The education department has the data to easily keeps tabs on kids enrolled in public schools, including Epic, but it cannot track private or homeschooled students because they aren’t required to register with the state government. That makes it nearly impossible to weed out these so-called “ghost students” who are dually or falsely enrolled in homeschool or private school as well as a virtual charter school during routine audits…

Epic Charter Schools touts many benefits, but one reason for its popularity is financial incentives. 

“For the homeschool community, the appeal has been the money,” explained Teresa Burnett, a homeschool parent from Shawnee. 

Epic teachers get bonuses for recruiting students and families receive up to one thousand dollars per child. That money is part of what Epic calls its “Learning Fund,” which can be used to purchase extra products and courses. 

Burnett regularly joins with other homeschool families in a co-op to do lessons and go on outings. While she has stuck exclusively with home education, many of those in the co-op she participated in last year have joined Epic. 

“By the time we got to October, November, I’m going to estimate approximately 50 percent of the families had all enrolled in Epic,” Burnett recalled. “They were still participating in the co-op and still enrolled at Epic. These moms were being told that they basically can have the best of both worlds. We can home educate, and then we get to also take advantage of the perks that Epic will provide. ‘Perks’ being the financial perks.”

State law enforcement describes these kids as “ghost students”— homeschool and private school students that are also enrolled at Epic but receive little to no instruction from the school. Epic’s founders allegedly used them to embezzle millions of taxpayer dollars.