Archives for category: Oklahoma

John Thompson, retired teacher in Oklahoma, knows who Cleta Mitchell is. Her career began in Oklahoma.

Cleta Mitchell sat alongside Trump and Mark Meadows as they made the now famous phone call to Georgia election officials to try to persuade or bully them into “finding” enough votes to reverse the election results in that state. Georgia law enforcement officials are now considering filing criminal charges against Trump for his encouragement of election fraud in that call.

Cleta Mitchell’s law firm, Foley & Lardner, questioned her role in prodding Georgia election officials to “find” enough votes to overturn the result of the state’s election. She “resigned” from the firm. She embarrassed the firm by encouraging Trump’s efforts to undermine the rule of law and the Constitution. I am happy to report that I was one of what must have been many who expressed those views on the firm’s website.

John Thompson writes:

Who is Cleta Mitchell, “a prominent GOP attorney,” who participated in the already infamous telephone call where President Donald Trump pressured Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger “to ‘find’ enough votes to overturn his defeat” in the November presidential election? The Washington Post reports that this “extraordinary one-hour phone call” is described by legal scholars “as a flagrant abuse of power and a potential criminal act.”

Mitchell, the former Oklahoma liberal, subsequently justified the call saying Raffensperger’s office:

Has made many statements over the past two months that are simply not correct and everyone involved with the efforts on behalf of the President’s election challenge has said the same thing: show us your records on which you rely to make these statements that our numbers are wrong.

How is it that the previously respected Cleta Deatherage came to participate in the effort to use “debunked conspiracy theories” to overthrow the results of a clearly legal election? What did Cleta Mitchell think when Trump demanded, “I just want to find 11,780 votes?”

Mitchell had been a well-liked, respected state representative, who became the “first woman in the U.S. to chair a state appropriations and budget committee.” But she said that she realized that professional politicians are “like noncustodial parents in a divorce” who “don’t really know” regular citizens who shop at grocery stores.

I wonder what Mitchell would say about how well this week’s fiasco, merely the latest in the Trump experiment where amateurs and zealots replace professionals, is turning out?   

The Atlantic’s Jonathan Krohn suggested an alternative explanation of how an advocate for the Equal Rights Amendment joined with conservative organizations to advance a rightwing agenda. Her allies include, Americans Back in Charge, the Bradley Foundation, the National Rifle Association, the American Conservative Union, the Republican National Lawyers Association, as well as Stephen Bannon’s Citizens of the American Republic, Krohn recalls Mitchell’s effort to expel GOProud, a gay rights group, from the Conservative Political Action Conference. He said her efforts “led GOProud’s Chris Barron to once call her “a nasty bigot,” and [Executive Director Jimmy] LaSalvia to accuse her of “personal animosity towards gay people.”

Krohn explains that Mitchell’s actions are “ironic” because her first husband was gay. They divorced in 1982. Her former husband, Duane Draper, later directed the Massachusetts AIDS policy office, and died of AIDS.

Krohn also recalls Deatherage’s 1984 marriage to Oklahoma City banker Dale Mitchell.  He then reports:

In late 1992, he (Mitchell) was convicted of five felony counts of conspiracy to defraud, misapplying bank funds and making false statements to banks and ordered to pay $3 million in restitution–something that his wife says convinced her that government had grown too big.The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer also wrote about Cleta Mitchell’s transformation. She quoted Mitchell’s claim that her husband “is the most honest person I’ve ever known.” His conviction convinced her that “overreaching government regulation is one of the great scandals of our time.”

Near the beginning of Mitchell’s post-Oklahoma career, she campaigned for term limits for legislators. She eventually developed a “stepmother theory of government.  “Citizen Legislators” would replace politicians; her vision would be “Why not take turns in office like jury duty.” 

If that sounds weird, however, wait until Mitchell’s allies more publicly reveal the next step toward undermining representative government.

Mitchell explained that she changed after her pastor warned of the “perils of struggling all one’s life to succeed at what in the end could turn out to be an unworthy pursuit.”

But, Mayer ended her article on how Mitchell became an “outsider” with the lesson, “appealing to the discontent of those outside the system may be the surest path to becoming an important player inside it.”

Since Mayer’s 1996 article, Mitchell’s allies at the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) have devised a plan that is the antithesis of her previous “Citizen Legislators” approach, and is even more disconnected from reality. Documented’s Jamie Corey reveals that nearly a year ago, Mitchell was one of three attorneys working with ALEC on a path that “legislators can take to question the validity of an election.”  It seems impossible to reconcile that tactic with Mitchell’s faith in the people, as opposed to their representatives. And the next ALEC move is even more incomprehensible, unless the goal is to attack American democracy on all fronts.

The Huffington Post’s Mary Papenfuss, in an article about Mitchell entitled Attorney on Trump’s Georgia Call Works with Group Aiming to Eliminate Senate Elections, reports that ALEC is trying to persuade legislatures to the repeal of the 17th Amendment. U.S. Senators would then be chosen by legislators not the voters! 

Getting back to The Atlantic piece on Mitchell, Krohn concludes, “Mitchell herself, ironically, offers a clear model of how people can change.” And while on the subject of changing a person’s mind, Law and Crime now cites the McClatchy report that Mitchell (who had worked for the NRA) “‘had concerns about [the NRA’s] ties to Russia’” and the NRA’s ‘”possible involvement in channeling Russian funds into the 2016 elections to help Donald Trump.’” But, I wonder what Mitchell was thinking when she  dismissed the report as a “complete fabrication.” 

Similarly, as reported by Slate, Mitchell was caught on tape telling a closed door ALEC panel on gerrymandering, “My advice to you is: If you don’t want it [notes from the panel] turned over in discovery, you probably ought to get rid of it before you go home.” Don’t such words raise questions about how she could respect voters over her allies who disenfranchise them?

Above all, I wonder what Mitchell thought when, as Law and Crime explains, the January 2 Trump phone call was “completely undermining Mitchell’s attempts to discuss the matters he raised.” And now, her law firm, Foley & Lardner is distancing itself from Mitchell,So, is it possible that the Cleta Mitchell – who is helping Trump undermine our constitutional democracy – might remember the words of her pastor and distance herself from ALEC’s next unworthy pursuit?

John Thompson, historian and retired teacher, writes often about what is happening in Oklahoma. It is often not good for public schools and teachers because of the state’s awful legislature, controlled by oil-and-gas billionaire Harold Hamm, and its Republican Governor Kevin Stitt. The best education leader in the state is state Commissioner Joy Hofmeister, who continues to protect students and teachers from political shenanigans.

Here is the latest from Thompson:

As the COVID pandemic began in Oklahoma City, before Trumpian-style pressure to reopen bars, in-person restaurants and large gatherings, and before the resistance to masks and other public health tools sparked a super-spread, it looked like the public and nonprofit sectors were uniting in a team effort to protect public health. Clearly, online charter schools had advantages over traditional public schools in providing virtual and hybrid instruction, but there was reason to hope that the corporate reform wars could be put behind us (at least in terms of local charter leaders.)

The for-profit EPIC Charter Schools wasn’t likely to change its financial and political misbehavior, but its years of experience in delivering online instruction gave it a head start in providing virtual learning during the shutdown. Sure enough, its enrollment soared to around 30,000.

On the other hand, due to years of financial shenanigans, it was inevitable that multiple investigations would prompt penalties, headlines, and other bad news for EPIC, and it seemed certain that it would continue to fight back bitterly, as opposed to making a good faith effort to improve instruction. And there was no chance that its allies – state, and national corporate reformers and politicians committed to uncontrolled competition – would slow their privatization campaigns.  

The bad news for EPIC et. al came as predicted. A state audit showed that EPIC improperly classified $8.9 million, and a follow-up report found an additional $800,000 in misclassified administrative spending. The state Board of Education demanded the return of $11 million. The Statewide Virtual Charter School Board moved to terminate its contract with Epic One-on-One. Governor Kevin Stitt apparently retaliated by removing members of two state boards for votes that didn’t conform to his education agenda.  

And the initial good news overshadowed a new set of problems for EPIC. A five-month investigation by Oklahoma Watch and Frontline revealed that many EPIC graduates’ are unprepared for college. The investigation found that students “described a system that made it easy to speed through classes and little or no structured counseling.”  (The data was released at the beginning of the pandemic, but it describes a dynamic that could become more crucial to EPIC’s effort to retain its new influx of online students.) 

In 2015, the 35% of Epic students met all four of ACT’s college readiness benchmarks – in English, math, reading and science. As enrollment increased, just 4% of 2019 students met the benchmarks, compared to 15% statewide. Perhaps prophetically, EPIC’s graduating class’ average ACT score dropped from 20.5 in 2018 to 16.5 in 2019.

Similarly, Oklahoma Watch and The Frontier have reported more bad news for competition-driven reformers. For instance, the Oklahoma City Public Schools had twice rejected Sovereign Charter School’s charter, but in 2018 it was sponsored by Rose State community college. Rose State is also reported to be considering the charter sponsorships of Santa Fe South charter schools, and W.K. Jackson Leadership Academy, now a private religious school.

By the summer of 2020, Sovereign was down to 40 students after Oklahoma City Public Schools rejected it twice. Sovereign took out a $700,000 loan, but its enrollment didn’t increase enough. So, the State Department of Education put it on probation.

Then, what State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister characterized as a “rickety structure” was proposed. Sovereign would merge with Santa Fe South, which would assume its facility’s lease, as well as its debt. Ironically, that building complex had been the home of the once-influential Seeworth Academy charter school which was taken over after a financial scandal.

At this point, the privatizers’ big, remaining weapon is an attack on urban schools and teachers unions for not reopening in-person instruction.  ChoiceMatters, the rightwing the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA),  Governor Stitt and Secretary of Education Ryan Walters, and a new organization, Oklahoma Parent Voice, pushed the agenda that “Enough is Enough,” and schools must immediately reopen. But their rally at the Capitol only attracted about two dozen parents.

The campaign to immediately reopen urban schools is clearly an anti-union, anti-public school tactic. But it may be undercut by the fact that almost all Oklahoma City charters closed their in-person instruction around the time the November super-spread forced the OKCPS to limit itself to virtual instruction.

A recent survey of teachers by the Oklahoma Education Association found that teachers are “stressed,” “overwhelmed,” and “scared.” About 12% of respondents had contracted COVID-19,  the teachers’ estimated average stress level was 7.7 on a scale of 10. 

When charters reopen, are their teachers likely to be less scared?

But maybe the rightwing won’t need to invest so much political capital in attacking teachers and unions. After all, Gov. Stitt may have found a new way to stimulate the economy. He made “a direct pitch to boost tourism in the state. Stitt stars in a 30-second promotional video encouraging those in neighboring states to visit Oklahoma. The video conveys a message that Oklahoma is open for business, and underscores the business friendly approach Stitt has taken to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt accepted the resignation of Melissa Crabtree, whom he appointed four days earlier. Crabtree is a home-schooling parent who has vociferously opposed any mask mandate. She was selected to replace Kurt Bollenbach, also appointed by Stitt, who wanted to claw back millions from a for-profit virtual charter and who believed that students should wear masks in school. Bollenbach was too sane and reasonable for Governor Stitt.

Gov. Kevin Stitt’s new appointee to the state Board of Education spent months sharing debunked COVID-19 medical advice, conspiracy theories and anti-vaccine content before hiding the posts from public view shortly after news of her new position became public Friday.

According to The Oklahoman:

Enid resident Melissa Crabtree was named to the education board after Stitt abruptly removed board member Kurt Bollenbach, who the governor appointed in 2019.

Crabtree is a vocal anti-mask advocate who earlier this year founded a group called Enid Freedom Fighters, which had helped for months to block a mask mandate in the city and is now leading an effort to recall elected officials who supported the move. Enid’s mask mandate passed Tuesday on a third attempt, according to an Enid News & Eagle story.

Stitt’s pick was condemned Friday by Democrats in the Legislature who criticized Crabtree’s views on masks and her lack of public education experience.

Information reviewed by Oklahoma Watch also shows that Crabtree frequently took to Facebook to share other controversial opinions, unsubstantiated medical advice and misinformation surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic that has killed at least 1,860 Oklahomans.

The posts were either deleted or hidden from public view just before noon Friday, but Oklahoma Watch was able to review and capture screenshots of several postings before that occurred.

This includes a post from last month where Crabtree, who frequently posts on the supposed benefits of essential oils, claimed to her more than 400 followers that zinc could “stop Covid from duplicating” and “will help a body not freak out at an illness…”

In another post from July, Crabtree told her followers to seek out a viral video where a doctor falsely touted hydroxychloroquine as a COVID cure. Multiple claims in that video have been debunked by fact-checkers.

Crabtree went on to write that Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, has “known that hydroxychloroquine worked for 15 years” and, without providing any evidence to back up her claims, that “they are purposely distorting the studies and letting people die.”

Crabtree also posted multiple times endorsing the controversial strategy of achieving herd immunity without the use of widespread vaccinations. This includes a post from last week where she wrote that “once viruses are here, the way we get herd immunity is by people building immunity to the virus” and that she’d “rather have (the virus) than get the vaccine.

Apparently even Governor Stitt was embarrassed by his selection. And now he is looking for a new member of the State Board. Hopefully it will be someone who cares about the health and safety of students and teachers, and someone willing to call out grifters and frauds.

Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt kicked his own appointee off the State Board of Education who made the terrible error of trying to claw back millions from a for-profit charter school and supported a mask mandate in all public schools.

Gov. Kevin Stitt abruptly replaced one of his own appointees to the Oklahoma State Board of Education this week.

Kurt Bollenbach of Kingfisher, who was appointed in April 2019 to serve a four-year term, recently supported a high-profile move to claw back more than $11 million in state funding from Epic Charter Schools and a failed attempt to mandate masks in all public schools.

He also recently drew public criticism from school choice advocates for leading a delay of approval for a couple of private schools to begin accepting state-funded scholarships for disabled students and foster children over questions about whether the schools’ anti-discrimination policies met minimum state and federal requirements.

Stitt replaced Bollenbach by appointing a home-schooling parent who opposes mask-wearing during the pandemic to the State Board of Education.

Many elected officials wondered why Stitt would appoint someone to the State Board who has no knowledge of Oklahoma’s schools and no qualifications. State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister praised Kurt Bollenbach, who was dumped by Stitt, apparently for being too responsible.

Hofmeister released this statement:

“Kurt Bollenbach has been an exceptional board member whose legal acumen, breadth of experience and commitment to excellence have been of great value to the State Board of Education. He is a man of tremendous principle and integrity. Of course, I look forward to meeting his successor on the board, Ms. Crabtree, and anticipate a good working relationship with her, but I will miss Kurt’s bold leadership.”

Melissa Crabtree is an ardent opponent of wearing face masks. She will, one expects, continue to oppose science and public health measures as a member of the state board.

As a reader in Okahoma said to me in an email, “I think I am living in bizarro world.”

John Harrington, chair of Oklahoma’s Statewide Virtual Charter School Board, wanted to force out two members of the board who apparently had conflicts of interest in their connection to scandal-scarred Epic charter schools. One is related to a founder of Epic, who made millions; the other received campaign donations from Epic. But before Harrington could act, Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt fired him and replaced him with a Christian school leader.

Gov. Kevin Stitt on Friday removed the president of the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board who recently led the initiation of termination proceedings against Epic Charter Schools and challenged two other board members about potential conflicts of interest with Epic.

John Harrington was notified Friday morning by Stitt’s newly appointed secretary of education that his service on the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board was over effective immediately.

Stitt’s office told the Tulsa World on Friday evening that the governor has appointed the former president of a private Christian school in Edmond in Harrington’s place.

Harrington said that only two days earlier, he had notified Stitt’s office, as well as the office of House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, of his intent to call a special meeting Nov. 18 so the board could consider voting to force members Mathew Hamrick and Phyllis Shepherd to recuse themselves from any matters related to Epic.

He provided copies of his emails to Stitt’s and McCall’s offices to the Tulsa World...

In late October, Assistant Attorney General Marie Schuble recommended that the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board enter into termination proceedings against Epic, the operator of Oklahoma’s largest online public school, called Epic One-on-One, based on the state’s new investigative audit findings that Epic’s operators might have violated fiscal management standards in their contract and various state laws, as well as for “good cause.”

The board voted 3-1 in favor, with Shepherd casting the lone “no” vote and Hamrick absent from the meeting...

As first reported in the Tulsa World, Shepherd is a relative of one of Epic’s two co-founders, who reportedly have become millionaires through their deal to manage the school, and Hamrick accepted campaign donations from one of the Epic co-founders in Hamrick’s failed bid for a state Senate seat.

In response to the Tulsa World’s reporting about Shepherd’s family tie, Speaker McCall sent Shepherd a letter and provided a copy to the Tulsa World that stated: “As an appointee to the House, my expectation is that if it is found that a conflict does exist for you to vote on matters related to Epic, that you would abstain from all future votes that are or could be encompassed by that conflict.”

In September, Harrington led Hamrick’s censure and removal from the board’s newly formed audit committee, accusing Hamrick of intentionally avoiding public votes by the board in 2019 and 2020 on matters seeking to unmask Epic’s use of tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to date budgeted for student learning that Epic is keeping private.

John Thompson, historian and retired teacher in Oklahoma, is concerned about the lackadaisical responses of elected officials in his state and reliance on Big Data, not science.

The headlines could not be clearer; we’re headed for a disastrous surge in COVID-19. But many of the same public health experts who previously called for shutdowns and, recently, some top journalists are pushing the position that we should continue to reopen schools, even as they warn that community transmission of the virus continues. I am becoming more worried that some of those data-driven public health experts, who I respect, are stepping out of their lanes and giving advice to institutions, urban schools, that they may not understand, and the result could be disastrous.

The motivation is the sincere concern for children, especially the most vulnerable, who suffer from school closures.  A common meme in this debate, however, involves noneducators describing their children’s experiences while rarely indicating how affluent schools are very different than high-poverty urban schools. And I see little evidence that these researchers fully consider the harm that can be done by becoming less cautious.

I hope we are not seeing a repeat of the mess that was made so much worse by Big Data scholars who contributed to the data-driven, competition-driven school reform fiasco. While their skills with numbers were outstanding, they and the corporate school reformers who hired them, refused to listen to educators, and they added more evidence in support of the truism, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” Due to their lack of curiosity about the complicated politics that drove education policy, then and (perhaps) now, the truism about metrics, “garbage in, garbage out” has been ignored.

A prime example of a researcher “going viral” when arguing that educators’ fears are “overblown” is Emily Oster. In May, Oster argued that “infection among kids is simply very unlikely.” Oster argued in October that:

Schools do not, in fact, appear to be major spreaders of COVID-19…. Our data on almost 200,000 kids in 47 states from the last two weeks of September revealed an infection rate of 0.13 percent among students and 0.24 percent among staff. That’s about 1.3 infections over two weeks in a school of 1,000 kids, or 2.2 infections over two weeks in a group of 1,000 staff.”

Oster even cited Florida and Texas as evidence that schools aren’t super spreaders, raising the question of why she would trust numbers published in those states. Moreover, a key to the first surge in those states was young people infecting members of their multigenerational homes. And as Rachel Cohen explained, Oster’s data “reflected an extremely small and unrepresentative sample of schools.” There was not a single urban traditional public school reporting data across 27 states in her dataset, including from Florida [and] Texas…”  Then, in November as more public health advocates pushed for more rapid reopenings, Texas became the first state to have a million infections.

I hope I’m wrong, but the data experts hired by the Billionaires Boys Club set out to prove that the reformers’ hypotheses about school improvement – which focused on classrooms, while ignoring the broader community – “can” work and transform schools. Now, data-driven analysis says that schools “can” be reopened more quickly. But in both cases, the question should have been about what “would” be the most likely results. Today, the evidence seems to say that a number of schools can be reopened safely, but the issue should be what would most likely happen in communities where public health recommendations are ignored.   

For instance, The New York Times published an analysis in early July with the theme, “We Have to Focus on Opening Schools, Not Bars.”  Since then, however, the focus was distorted by Trumpian ideology. For example, Oklahoma’s major metropolitan areas had taken a science-based, team approach to the coronavirus which kept infections down. But, the Trump-supporting Gov. Kevin Stitt pushed for a premature opening for businesses. On June 1, when the full reopening of public and private institutions began, the state only had 67 new infections.  On July 1, there was 355 new infections.  By August 1, daily infections jumped  to 1,000, and stayed around that level for three months. That number quickly doubled in November.

The Oklahoma City Public Schools had been professional when wrestling with the issue of reopening in-person classes. It started with pre-k and early elementary students, with the plan calling for the complete reopening of schools on Nov. 10. For reasons beyond the district’s control, it couldn’t have found itself in a worse situation, reopening at a time when all trends, national and local, seemed to foreshadow a tragedy. But the OKCPS was not only under pressure from ideology-driven Republicans, but it also faced a series of calls for reopening by many parents, and some journalists and medical professionals.

Given the national super spread, it’s likely that each city faced its own challenges, but here’s what drove community transmission in Oklahoma City: public gatherings ranging from the Tulsa Trump rally to the Weedstock festival to back-to-college parties; the complete reopening of most public school systems; the reopening of universities; high school and college football; the failure to enforce masks and social distancing policies or limit bars and indoor dining; holiday get-togethers; and then an unexpected blast of ice and rain which shut down electricity for hundreds of thousands of households for up to two weeks.  This sent thousands of households to stay in hotels, with family members, and hurriedly-made public spaces to escape the freezing weather.

On the weekend before the promised reopening of the OKCPS, a daily high of 4,507 new cases was reported. Granted, some of those numbers were due to delays in reporting due to ice. But the state’s three-day average was over 3,000 and since then the numbers have consistently been over 2,000.  (For comparisons sake, Oklahoma’s population is about 1.2% of the nation’s.) The worst increase was in Oklahoma County where according to the latest New York Times database, the seven day increase reached 58.8 per 100,000. And since the biggest public school dangers were in secondary schools, it was noteworthy that more than 5% of the state’s active cases were in the seven zip codes where all but three of the OKCPS middle and high schools were located.

At the Nov. 9 School Board meeting, when the state’s seven day average daily increase was 2,197, the American Federation of Teachers and other educators voiced their concerns about the reopening. After all, the White House Coronavirus Task Force put the metro area and Oklahoma County in the Red Zone. But, believe it or not, a state rating of Orange was used as the rationale for reopening all schools and extracurricular activities.

Moreover, some argue that schools don’t contribute as much as bars or indoor dining to the spread, but that misses the point. The question is whether school policies make conditions better or worse.   

Understanding the pressures that administrators and board members were under, when we got our electricity back, I sought to quietly urge caution, as opposed to writing about the need to close schools so they do not add to the spread which will get worse over Thanksgiving and that will make Christmas more dangerous.

I’d planned to send an email to OKCPS decision-makers with the link to the New York Times’ Are School Reopenings Over? School leaders may have felt trapped by political pressure from multiple sides, and this might encourage them to resist the pressure. But then I got my weekly email, The Grade,  from Alexander Russo, who has repeatedly attacked educators for failing to go back to in-person instruction. As in previous weeks, it included a series of journalists’ criticisms of supposedly over-cautious educators. At that, I knew I had to write a post to help counter that sort of public pressure.

But, guess what? As I went through the painful process of writing a piece explaining why we shouldn’t dare reopen the OKCPS at this time, it was announced that the district would pause the return to in-person instruction after four days! The Oklahoman reported that on Monday, the OKCPS will return to remote learning for the rest of the semester. It explained, “Rates of COVID-19 infections reached record highs this week while hospital space is at an all-time low for the pandemic. Other school districts in the metro area, which have taught in person for months, report hundreds of positive tests and quarantines every week among students and staff.”

 So, Superintendent Sean McDaniel reported that Oklahoma State Department of Health (OSDH) indicates that “cases per 100,000 for Oklahoma County are 67.3 for this week, as compared to 30.4 last week.” He explained:

As the number of COVID-19 cases has steadily risen over the last several weeks, we reached a significant turning point for Oklahoma County…The increase in positive cases for Oklahoma County has moved us into the OSDE’s (Oklahoma State Department of Education’s) Red Alert Level.

… Although our health officials have continuously supported our Return to Campus plan, they now recommend that we transition to Red Alert Level protocols.I would add that during the four days of in-person instruction, the state’s seven day average daily infections increased by 15%.
But, focusing on the positive, several suburban schools are following the OKCPS and returning to virtual learning.

The public health evidence regarding this fall’s debate about school closures is just as persuasive as it was this March when Oklahoma City schools quickly shut down. But, as Oklahoma and the nation face an even greater surge of Covid-19 infections, today’s complicated politics make it so much harder to engage in evidence-based decisions.

I know many or most Oklahomans will recoil from our governor ducking responsibility, refusing to even order masks, while saying the key is personal responsibility. But, I also understand that many parents will be upset by the return to online instruction only. And plenty of educators are frustrated by researchers like Oster who seem to have a simplistic view of the challenges faced by high-poverty schools, as opposed to the affluent classrooms that their children attend.

But we should remember that the OKCPS, like systems across the nation, was under great pressure to keep schools open. So, we need to stand up for our districts when they make these painful but necessary choices.

John Thompson, historian and retired teacher in Oklahoma, reviews a book for young people. The New York Times described the book as “a modern masterpiece–as epic as the “Iliad” and “Shahnameh,” and as heartwarming as “Charlotte’s Web.” It’s for the kids act the lunch table; the heroes of tomorrow, just looking to survive the battle of adolescence.” John agrees.

He writes:

The first word on the cover of Daniel Nayeri’s Everything Sad Is Untrue (A True Story) is untrue. In truth, the author’s first name isn’t Daniel. It was Khosrou, who was a king 1500 years ago. Nayeri’s parents were both professionals and they were descended from elites, but he became a refugee growing up poor in Edmond, Oklahoma. The acquired name of Daniel was less likely to prompt rejection, discomfort, and sadness.

The book’s first sentence is: “All Persians are liars and lying is a sin.  That’s what the kids in Mrs. Miller’s class think.” But Daniel’s dad, Massoud, who also was a poet, says Persians are worse than liars because they’re poets, so they don’t know they’re liars. The truth about poets is, “They are just trying to remember their dreams.”

Daniel draws on 6,000 years of Persian memories and the Oklahoma culture of his childhood to make sense of his “last memories” of those he loved. He goes back and forth from the dreams of Iran and Oklahoma, weaving a historic tapestry, complete with the flaws that are purposely woven into Persian rugs.  

Many key themes come from 1,001 Nights, which is “not in true history, but in myth history.” The Persian king, Shahryar, marries a woman every night and executes her the next day until Scheherazade, a “finigonzon” (beautiful girl), learns to survive by telling incomplete stories each night and crafting a new one the next morning. She survives by never getting to a last memory.

The Oklahoma evils, exemplified by Brandon Goff, the bully who abused Daniel the most, aren’t as extreme. He suffers just as much when trying to bond with the beautiful and affluent Kelly J., and she cruelly reads the Valentines Day card he sent her to their classmates. But, Daniel is painfully aware of how his classmates just watch and remain silent, illustrating the evil of “all the stuff you’ve left undone.”

The children’s acculturation towards evilness is foreshadowed in their class lesson during the Iraq War. Jared S. “draws a bunch of fighter jets shooting arrows at monkeys on camels.” Daniel wants to tell about being three-years-old and being bombed by Saddam Hussein every night, but nobody listens. After trying to enlighten a classmate, he’s brushed off, “I-ran, I-rack “I’d kick em in the balls.”

Another theme comes from the tale of Mithridates, who knew he was targeted for poisoning. He gave himself nonlethal doses of poison, building immunity. Since he then drank the poison with his friends who plotted against him at a banquet, they were obligated to do the same in order to hide their lies, thus killing themselves. But Daniel drew another lesson; the lies you tell to survive, or fit in, come back as evil. We can all become like Mithridates whose “poisoned heart beat poisoned blood.”

As Daniel’s stories unfold, he explores differences in the way that common themes play out. He notes, “Oklahomans don’t poison each other except with canned green beans that have a vague medicine flavor.” He then gives hilarious descriptions of how processed food, especially sweets, fit into different social roles, especially at church potluck dinners.

His altered drawing of the Oklahoma map illustrates the best of its culture. It looks like a soup bowl that Christians use to feed strangers. In the other outline of the state, the Panhandle is the handle of an axe that chops down on others who are different.

A church potluck dinner degenerates after the clueless Daniel wore a Miami Dolphins cap in a group of Cowboy fans. He ends up in the Emergency Room after a fight over Oklahoma dreams he was oblivious about.

Being an A+ student makes it more difficult for Daniel, a mazloom or “a kicked puppy,” to fit in. He persists and becomes more skillful in navigating cultural complexities. He notes that “Oklahoma is the only state in the Union where it is legal to own an anti-sniper rifle” that shoots “bullets the size of milk cartons.” But he bonds with a wonderful librarian and his teacher. And trying to discuss Persian desserts can become confusing, so he deescalates by adding, “I also like Kit Kat.” He also picks up insights like, “One rule in Oklahoma is that if a grownie talks to you, speak like an Okie. If a finigonzon talks to you, be chill.”

Daniel, who was 8-years-old when he came to Oklahoma, adapts and his elementary and middle school experiences teach him insights, such as, “In Oklahoma, rich people have nice things. In Iran, rich people have nice spaces.” He also learns:

“Sometimes in a village in Iran, or Edmond, Oklahoma, a dog and a cat will have such a vicious fight that both of them are changed forever. … [They] make some kind of boundary and stick to their territory, so they can pretend they won a kingdom the size of half of a town, when they really lost a limb the size of the other half.”

During his typical day, Daniel would stay up to 4:00 am in order to miss the school bus that Brandon Goff road. He would be last in line for lunch, so he would be less likely to be seen as not having any money and get more food from the nice cafeteria lady. Even on a city bus, he learned to sit in the back after bullying left him with multiple bruises.

Daniel’s sister, Dina, was even smarter than he, and she was less likely to contort herself into being accepted. But, when they were in England, Dina tried so hard to fit in that she followed a kid’s instructions, put her finger in a door jamb, and had it chopped off.

Probably influenced by painkillers, Dina emerged from her room that night having found Jesus. Their mom, Sima, followed her lead. This almost cost Sima her life. Back in Iran, she was attending an underground church. Rather than name names under torture, she and the children escape to Dubai. Her ex-husband connected them with a sheik who seemed willing to rescue them. But he wanted Dina as his wife. The mom got them out of the situation by telling him that the child bride he wanted was a Christian. So, they found themselves homeless.

In a camp in Italy, Daniel became close to a wonderful Kurdish football player and mentor. After probing too deeply, he learned why Kurds were treated like half of a person. His friend had been gassed so badly by Saddam Hussein that he was half of a half of a person.  

Due to the efforts of Christians like Jim and Jean Dawson, who Daniel says exemplify the best of Oklahoma, the family makes it to Edmond. His mom was their hero, working multiple jobs, enduring abuse from her second husband. Daniel describes just a part of her workday:

She comes home and goes straight to the kitchen. I don’t mean that she comes home, goes to her room to change clothes, wanders into the bathroom, picks through the mail, and then finally arrives at the refrigerator. … She [goes] straight to the kitchen to cook dinner.

As he seeks to follow intertwined dreams, Daniel learns, “History is a weave of a rug.” He understands what some people want when he learns: “A god that listens is love. A god who speaks is law.”

He eventually understands:

“Love is empty without justice.

Justice is cruel without love.”

“God should be both.

If a god isn’t, that is no God.”

Daniel learns, “If you want a god who listens, maybe all you want is pity for losing your only friend, like Mr. Sheep Sheep.” (Mr. Sheep Sheep was Daniels beloved pet who he had to leave in Iran.) If you want a god who speaks, you may embrace authoritarianism.

The novel’s climax occurs when his dad visits from Iran. At first, when learning that his classmates were afraid that his father was another migrant without papers, the prospects of the encounter look dim. But, his father wins everyone over, even being baptized at the church where Daniel had been assaulted. For about the first time, a reader can hope for an unambiguous happy ending. When his dad brings them to Water World Rapids, optimism grows even further.

Maybe Daniel can free himself from the refugees’ cycle of “last memories” of loved ones and places they lose.

Daniel foreshadows disappointment, however, when he apologizes to readers, saying that maybe Persians are sinners; and he’s a “patchwork text;” who deserves to be hit all the time; and a liar who doesn’t deserve a welcome.

“Sorry I wasted your time.”

In the last page, Daniel’s family lands back in the Economy Lodge Motel, but now he is different, “I knew we would be whole one day.” “Maybe it would take a thousand years,” the seeker of true dreams concludes, “But we’d get there, little by little.”

John Thompson, historian and retired teacher, writes in the Progressive about the epic failure of a for-profit virtual school in Oklahoma.

The Epic virtual charter school was well positioned to benefit from the demand for remote learning during the pandemic. But it just happened that its great moment was spoiled by the state’s discovery of financial irregularities.

On October 12, Oklahoma’s Board of Education demanded that Epic Charter Schools, a statewide online charter, refund $11 million to the state. The decision came after the first part of a state audit showed that Epic charged the school district for $8.4 million in improperly classified administrative costs between 2015 and 2019, as well as millions of dollars for violations that the state previously failed to address.

The second part of the audit will investigate the $79 million in public money that was directed to a “learning fund,” an $800 to $1,000 stipend for students enrolled in Epic’s “One-on-One” individual learning program. While the funds were intended to cover educational expenses, a search warrant issued by the Oklahoma State Board of Investigation found that they may have been used to entice “ghost students,” or students that were technically enrolled—and therefore counted in Epic’s per-pupil funding requests to the state—but received minimal instruction from teachers.

Despite the controversy surrounding Epic, the school has received a total of $458 million in state funds since 2015, according to the audit report. More than $125 million of this money went to Epic Youth Services, a for-profit management company owned by the school’s co-founders, David Chaney and Ben Harris. 

Following the audit’s release, the Oklahoma Virtual Charter School board began investigating forty-two potential violations that could lead to the termination of the contract allowing Epic’s One-on-One program to operate. 

The state money flowed freely to Epic at the same time that the state underfunded its public schools.

The state chose to fund a for-profit charter instead of trusting the advice of its educators about proper use of online learning:

Although Oklahoma’s education leaders couldn’t have foreseen that schools would be confronted with the coronavirus, they could have done a better job at creating the infrastructure for quality online learning. Rather than take the for-profit shortcut, they would have done better to follow the rubriclaid out in 2019 by the Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administration (CCOSA), which called for: 

Highly qualified teachers certified in the courses taught;

Virtual courses that supplement in-person learning once the school—working in cooperation with parents—identifies the options that are educationally appropriate and best fit each student’s needs;

Equity to ensure students have a “place” where they have opportunities for extracurricular activities, access to transportation, nutrition and counseling services, along with immediate remediation as soon as the teacher identifies that a student is struggling;

Transparency on financial and data reporting.

Following CCOSA’s advice would have provided more financial transparency, but the biggest advantage would have been in terms of the “people side” of education. 

CCOSA’s framework would have monitored students who were not attending or slipping further behind. It would have laid a foundation of trust and communication. Its system of using technology and teamwork to improve learning would have been invaluable when in-person instruction was shut down without warning. 

Several smaller districts had already made thoughtful efforts to provide holistic virtual instruction and blended learning, as they wrestled with corporate school reform mandates and budget cuts. 

If the state hadn’t gambled on Epic as the pioneer for online instruction, those efforts could have led to digital technology being used in a fairer and more equitable way.  

Why listen to respected educators when for-profit sharks are in the water?

A recent state audit of Epic Charter Schools documented many financial problems. As a result, the state’s Virtual Charter School Board has initiated a contract termination process in which Epic will have a chance to present its case against closure. The board voted 3-1.

The one board member who voted no was Phyllis Shepherd. It turns out that she is related to the founder of the Epic charter school. She had wished him “happy birthday” and “happy anniversary” on social media posts and signed it “Aunt Phyllis.”

One member of the board was missing:

Absent at Tuesday’s meeting was board member Mathew Hamrick, who was censured and stripped of his seat on a newly formed audit committee by a majority vote of his fellow board members in September.

Hamrick was accused of intentionally avoiding public votes by the board in 2019 and 2020 on matters seeking to unmask Epic’s use of tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to date budgeted for student learning that Epic, the largest online school operator, is keeping private and for going rogue on the board’s official position in a legal battle over Epic Charter Schools’ spending records.

In late July, Hamrick signed an affidavit on behalf of Epic’s for-profit operator, which is shielding Epic’s Learning Fund spending records — and in direct opposition to the official position of the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board.

Hamrick ran for Senate District 45 during a 2017 special election but was defeated in the Republican primary. Records from the Oklahoma Ethics Commission show that Epic co-founder and co-owner of Epic Youth Services charter school management company David Chaney contributed to Hamrick’s 2017 campaign.

On Monday, the Oklahoma State Board of Education, which accredits all public schools in Oklahoma, voted unanimously to demand back $11.2 million in taxpayer funds based on the investigative audit by the State Auditor and Inspector’s Office.

Ben Felder wrote a comprehensive review of the State Auditor’s report about EPIC charter schools. EPIC has previously been fined more than half a million dollars for overspending on administration. The audit proposes that for-profit management of charter schools should be ended. The following is an excerpt. Online charter schools are immensely profitable regardless of the quality of services they provide. Governor Stitt of Oklahoma is a Trump-DeVos ally. The state is fortunate to have a state superintendent, Joy Hofmeister, who is doing her best to improve public schools, which are underfunded. In a state that does not pay for its public schools, it makes no sense to fund an alternative system of charter schools using dollars subtracted from public schools.

Felder writes:

In presenting the findings of her investigation into Epic Charter School’s financial management, State Auditor Cindy Byrd opened her remarks at a Thursday news conference with a clarification that her audit was “not an indictment of charter schools or the charter school model.” 

But in her report, Byrd highlighted the ways in which current state laws, regulations and practices have failed to prevent the type of abuse she was accusing Epic of committing. 

She also recommended a significant change to how charter schools operate, including the end of for-profit organizations managing charter schools.

The Charter School Act has freed charter schools from some of the regulations created for traditional public schools and has provided a statutory shield that allows for some reduced financial accountability and less than full transparency,” the audit stated. 

“The generous privileges granted to charter schools by the legislature are ripe for potential abuse.”

There are around 20 charter school systems in Oklahoma, most located in Oklahoma City or Tulsa, and many with a focus on serving low-income students. 

“Brick and mortar” charter schools, which are managed much like a traditional school with a building and classroom teachers, operate with some anonymity, including the ability to set their own schedules and curriculum. 

Virtual charter schools operate with significantly more flexibility, including with attendance, staffing and disbursement of funding. 

Epic operates separate virtual and “blended” schools.

The state Department of Education oversees many aspects of a charter school’s finances, including compliance with federal programs, expenditure and revenue coding, and accreditation. 

However, the state’s audit of Epic said the school’s financial reports are “accepted at face value by (the state Department of Education) without on-site followup,” even when the reports appeared questionable, such as when hundreds of teachers were listed with the same 60/40 percentage split between Epic’s virtual and blended schools. 

“Again, oversight exists, but true accountability is lacking,” the audit stated.

The state Department of Education has penalized Epic in the past when it has spotted violations of state statute, including this year when the virtual school was penalized more than $530,000 for exceeding the state limit on administrative spending, a limit meant to keep the bulk of state education funding in the classroom. 

But Byrd’s audit claimed state education officials failed to enforce other financial reporting violations, even when they were known. 

In Fiscal Year 2016, the state auditor claims Epic officials intentionally misreported administrative costs in an apparent effort to avoid a possible $2.6 million penalty. State education officials questioned the practice but ultimately accepted Epic’s reporting. 

The audit said the state Department of Education and Epic “share the responsibility for the breakdown of the process, which resulted in no penalty to (Epic) and no accountability for the reclassified administrative costs.”

State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister toured the Central Oklahoma PPE distribution warehouse for schools in Oklahoma City on Aug. 18, 2020. BEN FELDER/The Frontier

State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister said a rule change passed by the state Board of Education earlier this year has remedied some of the problems with the administrative cost reports that the department was forced to accept in 2016.

But she said the department is still limited in many ways when it comes to holding charter schools accountable. 

“The audit findings also point to clear limitations the Oklahoma State Department of Education has had for decades in terms of ensuring the full veracity of millions of data points and school-certified information submitted to the agency,” Hofmeister said in a statement to The Frontier. 

“This is unacceptable and investments in modernization efforts must be a collective priority. We must do better, and we will do better.”

Gov. Kevin Stitt, who ordered the audit of Epic last year, said the “initial findings are concerning,” but also said he did not see it as an indictment on charter schools as a whole. 

Gov. Kevin Stitt speaks during a media conference at the state Capitol on June 30, 2020. BEN FELDER/The Frontier

“I am grateful for Auditor Byrd’s extensive work on this report and agree that her findings are not representative of all public charter schools or alternative forms of education,” Stitt said in a Thursday statement.

Like the traditional school system, Oklahoma’s charter schools are diverse and operate under various agreements and procedures. Many are referred to as “mom and pop charters,” meaning they are locally controlled, rather than operated by a national organization. 

Oklahoma’s charter schools also vary in academic performance with some ranking high on state assessments, while others struggle with low test scores.

Charter schools have been a topic of political debate for decades and Epic has consistently responded to allegations of financial mismanagement with claims they are under political attack. 

In its initial response to the audit, Epic officials did not address its findings but instead accused Byrd of “attacking parents’ rights to choose” the school that is best for them. 

“Once you cut through the theatrics of today’s announcement, the conclusion of the report calls for changes to the law; it does not assert that laws have been broken,” Epic said in a statement. 

Byrd’s audit does call for law changes, including a reference to a California law that prohibits charter schools from being operated by a for-profit organization or entering into a subcontract for management services with a for-profit organization, which is how Epic operates. 

At least one other Oklahoma virtual charter school, E-School Virtual Charter Academy, uses a private company to manage many of its expenses, including paying its superintendent and assistant superintendent. 

“Other states have already determined for-profit charter management organizations do not benefit taxpayers,” Byrd’s audit said. “Oklahoma should consider the same.”