Archives for category: Oklahoma

John Thompson, historian and retired teacher in Oklahoma, makes an urgent appeal to save the life of his former student Julius Jones.

He writes:

I just watched the rebroadcast of ABC’s “20 20” documentary, “The Last Defense,” about my former student, Julius Jones, who is on Death Row even though he’s probably innocent. It was an abridged version that left time to update the case’s developments over the last two years. It refuted the claims at a recent press conference by Oklahoma Attorney General Robert Hunter that the evidence still says that Jones murdered Paul Howell in front of his children, while carjacking his Suburban. (I also appeared in the documentary.)

As I will explain, there is no hard evidence that Jones committed the crime, and there is plenty of evidence that my other former student, Chris “Westside” Jordan shot Mr. Howell. Closing a documentary which revealed glaring miscarriages of justice, the producer, Scott Budrick says, “I don’t think there is anyone … who can say Julius Jones received a fair trial.”

The criminal justice system has always been torn between the ideal that the defendant is “innocent until proven guilty,” and the prosecutors’ real world commitment to winning. Individual district attorneys operate in a system where 90% or more of cases must be settled with a plea bargain. If fairness was the overriding principle, too many defendants would go to trial and the system would be overwhelmed.

The juxtaposition of A.G. Hunter’s attack on the “Justice for Julius” movement and “The Last Defense,” with the outrages revealed in the documentary, leads me back to the belief that district attorneys like the late “Cowboy Bob” Macy are a huge problem. The even bigger problem isn’t the individual prosecutors, but how the system creates a law enforcement culture where winning is the priority.

For instance, A.G. Hunter has been very effective in presenting the case, as it existed in 2002, against Jones. There is nothing wrong with Hunter visiting with the Howell family and, like the defendants repeatedly have, saying that the family’s suffering must be acknowledged. And trial attorneys routinely cross that line with emotional arguments personalizing the case, as opposed to presenting evidence in a balanced manner.

However, Hunter went too far when he told the press conference, “I’m here today as an advocate for the late Paul Howell and his family … They are the victims in this case, make no mistake about it, and the pain of their loss is revisited with each misguided public appeal on Mr. Jones’ behalf.”

Then Hunter skillfully repeated the evidence that was presented to the jury and subsequent appeals judges. As the defense acknowledged, if that was all that was known about the horrific murder, a guilty verdict would be understandable. The problem is that the attorney general, being a loyal team member, ignores the large body of evidence that has been discovered and compiled over the last decade.

Moreover, Hunter released the trial transcript, but he didn’t seek to release the evidence which mattered the most – the prosecution’s trial record file.

And that leads to the reason why Jones is on Death Row. The high-profile investigation was guided by two police informants, who were both facing long sentences for other crimes.

The experienced prosecutors skillfully appealed to the jurors’ emotions. I doubt the district attorney’s office was surprised to hear the jury foreman tell “20 20” that, in a case like that one, you “go with your heart more than anything else.” The juror trusted “what you felt in your gut.” When delivering the verdict, the juror “felt right.”

Jones and his attorneys had always admitted that he had not been perfect, and he had committed nonviolent offences. But Hunter said that Jones’ “criminal history was replete with the use and threat of violence: armed robbery, carjackings, assault.”

Jones had not been charged with such crimes, and the D.A. never proved these cases against Jones in court. Instead, they were brought up in the sentencing phase where the state can simply say that Jones did this, he did that, without proof. This is because such claims do not need to have been proven. It is a typical tactic that prosecutors use to frighten juries into imposing the death penalty. If the State had the evidence of violent offenses, the defense asks, why didn’t it file charges back in 1999? Twenty-one years later the A.G. is throwing this out there, trying to make it stick.

The State eventually agreed to a DNA test of a bandanna that was found wrapped around the apparent murder weapon in the Jones’ family home. A.G. Hunter argues that “the major component of the DNA profile matched Jones.” But, Dr. Eli Shapiro did a more complete and nuanced analysis. Seven of the 21 genetic markers were found to be consistent with Jones’ DNA. The Jones defense notes that the finding doesn’t “constitute a match under law enforcement standards.” Moreover, no saliva DNA was found on the bandanna, as would be expected after the gunman shouted into it as the eyewitness testified to at trial.

The biggest problem with the State’s claim is that Jordan came by the Jones’ house the day after the murder, said he was locked out of his grandmother’s house, and spent the night sleeping upstairs where he could have easily planted the bandanna and the gun. And when the police searched the Jones’ house, Jordan was in a police car outside, so he could direct them toward the evidence.

In other words, had all of this DNA evidence been presented at trial, it would not have incriminated Jones in a trial where he was considered “innocent until proven guilty.”

“The Last Defense” includes statements by his public defender, who was inexperienced in murder trials and who acknowledged that he did a “terrible job” of cross examining Chris Jordan, who repeatedly contradicted himself when fingering Julius as the murderer.

The jury did not hear statements by two inmates who said that co-defendant Jordan bragged about the killing and the deal he made to get out of prison in 15 years. Jordon, in fact, was released 15 years into his 30 year sentence.

Neither did the defense attorney call Jones’ family to the stand even though they would have testified that he was visiting their home until about 9:30, the time when the murder was committed in Edmond. His current attorneys explain:

Julius’s trial lawyers claim in sworn affidavits in 2004 that they delegated the investigation of the alibi to an investigator who was untrained and unqualified. This investigator never provided written or taped notes of his supposed alibi investigation

Neither did the Jones defense do an adequate job of distinguishing between Jones, who was photographed just before and just after the murder with close-cropped hair. The witness, Megan Tobey, testified that the shooter had “a half an inch to an inch” of hair sticking out of the bandanna. This is crucial because Jones had close-cropped hair that didn’t fit such a description. Hunter indicates that the defense claimed that the witness said the shooter had “cornrows.” But the Jones defense position is:

She did not testify, as the AG’s Statement misrepresents, that the shooter did not have braids or corn rows. Ms. Tobey also specifically affirmed that the shooter had hair sticking out from both sides and about a half an inch.

Moreover, the defense attorney did not stress the point of how important that testimony was in terms of incriminating Jordan, not Jones.

Finally, at least one juror heard a fellow juror say, “Well, they should just take that n—– out back, shoot him and bury him under the jail.” The juror told the judge about the comments the following day, but the juror was not removed, supposedly because the judge was not told that the N-word was used.

As I rethink the Julius Jones case, and the district attorney’s response, I recall the 1980s when I was a legal historian and when violence in Oklahoma City was so much worse than we could imagine today. Back then, I was one of many who was cautiously optimistic when Bob Macy took office.

My research had focused on Oklahoma County from the 1960s to the 1990s. Clearly, the War on Drugs undermined the progress which I had witnessed. Despite my intense involvement with the inner city, and seeing many abuses of power, it never occurred to me that law enforcement in 1999 could resemble the brutality of 1969. I’m now shocked that today’s prosecutors, who in my experience want to distance themselves from the corrupt violence of Jim Crow Oklahoma, are still refusing to break with the system of the past which deprived Julius Jones of a fair trial.

During either era, however, the publicity that accompanies capital crimes means that death penalty cases bring out the worst in the system. But, this is not 1999 or 2002 when Jones faced trial. We now know far more about the facts regarding that horrible murder and biased prosecution. Because of longstanding practices and the 1980s and 1990s “reforms,” designed to get tougher on crime by undermining defendants’ rights, no jurors, and few or no judges, have looked at the whole story. Julius Jones’ life now depends on the Pardon and Parole Board and the Governor, and whether a majority will commit to justice for Julius, taking a step toward a criminal justice system worthy of our democracy.

Dark money—anonymous donors—are pouring money into primary campaigns. The main donor is the Oklahoma Federation of Children, the state affiliate of Betsy DeVos’ American Federation of Children. Never in history has there been a Secretary of Education with her own political PAC.

The Tulsa school board went into executive session and talked until 1 am, then voted to extend Deborah Gist’s contract for two years. Two board members voted no.

The vote occurred one week before an election runoff for two board seats.

Gist is a member of Jeb Bush’s Chiefs for Change, which supports charters, vouchers, and high-stakes testing. As State Superintendent in Rhode Island a decade ago, she achieved fame and notoriety for firing the entire staff of Central Falls High School due to low test scores. Central Falls is the poorest district in the state. It still has the lowest scores in the state.

John Thompson writes about his former student, who is scheduled to die:

As the nation wrestles with the latest police killings and Black Lives Matter protests, the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board must decide whether to allow the execution of my former student, Julius Jones. Julius’ request for commutation has gained the support of the Congressional Black Caucus; criminal justice expert, Bryan Stevenson; numerous elected officials, pastors, bishops and archbishops; the Executive Director of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform; the President of the NAACP State Conference; and public figures ranging from Kim Kardashian to a former Attorney General of Canada; and the Executive Director of the George Kaiser Foundation.

Now, three NBA basketball players, Blake Griffin, Russell Westbrook, and Trae Young, have joined in support of Julius.

Griffin, Westbrook, Young: Commute the sentence of Julius Jones

I was struck by the personal part of letter written by Griffin, who often was in our gym when I played basketball with Julius, his brother and his sister, as well as the person who we believe committed the murder. He wrote:

My father, Tommy Griffin, coached Julius when he played basketball at John Marshall High School, and often I would tag along to practices and watch Julius and his team play. Our familial relationship goes back generations. My father grew up with Julius’ parents. Our grandmothers were best friends. The Jones family has always had strong values and deep commitments to the community.

I feel terrible for everyone involved in the tragic events of the summer of 1999; however, I do believe that the wrong person is being punished for this crime.

Coach Griffin offers similar support: “’In my heart and my mind, I think that they should open it up and look at it strongly,’ Tommy Griffin said. ‘If we’re wrong, we’re wrong. But there are so many things leading to them being wrong.’”

Twenty years ago, we often thought that Oklahoma City was moving on from the nightmare of the 1980s and early 1990s when the War on Drugs perverted our criminal justice system. We had no idea that even today, actual innocence, alone, would not be enough to get the Supreme Court to consider the now-huge body of evidence that Julius is innocent.

Click to access Aglialoro-final.pdf

As I recall, my visit to the Jones’ home was scheduled before Julius’ arrest, so I was in their living room just after their house was ransacked by the police. I clearly remember the thoughts shared between so many people who knew both defendants. We didn’t expect the police to just take our words for it, but neither did we expect to be completely ignored. It quickly looked like the investigators had made up their minds, and targeted the least likely suspect.

Being a former legal historian who had deeply researched the Oklahoma County District Attorney office’s recent past, I recalled one DA’s favorite meme: “Every inmate at Big Mac (state prison) is guilty of the crime he was duly convicted of – or something else.”

Twenty years later, there is abundant evidence that the institutional racism, which drove so much of law enforcement assumptions, explains why Julius is on Death Row, even though the totality of new evidence has not been reviewed in court. The co-defendant, Chris Jordan, changed his story at least six times when interviewed by the police, but Julius’s inexperienced attorneys didn’t cross-examine Jones regarding his inconsistencies. The jury did not hear that Jordan bragged to fellow inmates that he, not Julius, had committed the homicide. Nor did the defense attorney stress Julius’ photograph, taken a week before the crime, which showed he did not fit the only eye witness’ description of the shooter. Julius’ attorneys also failed to present evidence that Julius was home with his family the night of the murder.

In exchange for testifying against Julius, Jordan pleaded guilty to first-degree murder, was given a life sentence with possibility of parole after 30 years. However, there is evidence of a secret deal with Jordan where he would only serve 12 to 15 years in prison in exchange for his testimony. Jordan was released from prison after serving only 15 years.

Neither was it revealed that a juror reported that another juror used the N-word when referring to Julius, but was not removed from the jury.

If jurors or judges could view all of the evidence presented in the three-hour ABC documentary, The Last Defense, they could connect the dots accordingly. I suspect few would conclude that the evidence points to Julius’ guilt. It’s hard to see how any would say that he received a fair trial.

And I expect that most would agree that much of the problem was the continuing assumption that young, Black defendants must be guilty of something or they wouldn’t be a suspect. That mindset likely helps explain why the Oklahoma City police have killed 48 people since 2013, the second highest, per capita rate in the nation.

Chief calls report ‘extremely flawed’ but data appears accurate in labeling OKC with second highest police killing rate

Of course, the law enforcement mindset which targeted Julius is still alive, and it contributes to the police killings that are being protested by Black Lives Matter and a range of Americans of all races. That battle will continue for a long time. It is hoped, however, that the Parole Board will consider Julius’ case in early June. Almost 4 million have signed his petition, and I hope readers will help reach the goal of 4.5 million.

Sign the Petition

This would not normally be news, but in the a Trump era, when science is disregarded, it is amazing.

The Oklahoma Legislature approved state science standards that include evolution and climate change!

The e-word — “evolution” — is unabashedly used: for example, a high school standard for biology expects students to be able to “[c]ommunicate scientific information that common ancestry and biological evolution are supported by multiple lines of empirical evidence.”

Anthropogenic climate change is also straightforwardly acknowledged: for example, a disciplinary core idea in Earth Systems is that “Changes in the atmosphere due to human activity have increased carbon dioxide concentrations and thus affect climate.”

In contrast, the old standards conspicuously avoided use of the e-word, and even their limited treatment of climate change was challenged by the legislature, which repeatedly tried but ultimately failed to block their adoption, as NCSE previously reported.

The new standards were submitted to the legislature for its approval on March 2, 2020. A resolution to approve the standards (House Joint Resolution 1041) passed the House on a 97-2 vote on May 13, 2020, but was not considered by the Senate before adjournment

John Thompson, historian and retired teacher, has posted here many times about education and politics in his home state of Oklahoma.

He writes today about the politics of the pandemic:

When David Holt was elected mayor of Oklahoma City, I shared some of the concerns of fellow educators. I worried that the former Republican state senator would push for more charters, perhaps even the so-called “portfolio model.” But, what I’ve seen has been a civil rights advocate who actually listened to all sides. I repeatedly hear from friends that Holt has probably spent more time in African-American churches than all of our city’s previous mayors combined, and I suspect that is a big reason why he hasn’t bought the simplistic spin which many other Oklahoma leaders have.

I’ve attributed Mayor Holt’s open-mindedness, in large part, to the conversations that went with his celebration of the 60th anniversary of the nation’s largest Sit-In movement, which was led by Oklahoma City teachers and students. He listens. He’s not afraid to face hard facts of life.

In his 2020 State of the City address, Mayor Holt proposed a “big picture, everything-is-on-the-table, visionary conversation” about making schooling a team effort. Holt said it would “truly” be a collaboration between the OKCPS, the City of Oklahoma City, and community partners. Our schools and city need a “unified vision,” he explained. We especially need educators who “feel free to talk about the things nobody could achieve on their own.”

Mayor Holt is now facing a challenge he cannot overcome on his own. And sadly, the stakes this month are life and death. I strongly believe that most people in Oklahoma City support the mayor’s leadership and his shelter-in-place policies. But we’re also the state where “one city abandoned its mask rule after store clerks were threatened,” and a McDonald’s customer shot two employees because she was “angry that the restaurant’s dining area was closed.”

So, I’m turning to a national education blog in order to tell a full story of a conflict that is growing across the nation. And since the Oklahoma governor intends to open up the state to an even more dangerous degree on May 15, our mayor, who has listened so respectfully to all sides but, above all, to the science, needs the public’s support.

For the first month of the COVID-19 pandemic, it looked like Mayor David Holt would be going down in history as Oklahoma City’s version of Dr. Anthony Fauci. Holt deserves much of the credit for helping Oklahoma City once be ranked by the New York Times as one of the nation’s top cities where “There May Be Good News Ahead.” The Times further explains that the April contagion’s decline occurred in Tulsa and Oklahoma City, but that the state is facing a rebound of the virus.

After facing irresistible pressure to prematurely reopen the city’s economy, it might seem like the Holt-Fauci comparison won’t endure. I believe that the next few weeks could further illustrate Holt’s and Fauci’s similarities. In both cases, the outcomes could be tragic.

In early March, Mayor Holt made it clear, “We will listen to the CDC (Center for Disease Control), we will listen to our local public health officials and we will follow the best science that the world has to offer.” Despite pressure to reopen Oklahoma City’s economy to boost short-term economic outputs, Holt says, “We will prioritize life.”

Mayor Holt: Plan to reopen ‘will prioritize life’

Similarly, as explained by Stanford’s David Reiman, Dr. Fauci “has essentially become the embodiment of the bio-medical and public-health research” which must drive decision-making. He’s done so by becoming “completely a-political and nonideological.” Fauci learned from the AIDS crisis, where he was among the first to sound the warning. He listened to protesters and adjusted his thinking based on solid evidence. Then and now, and when dealing with epidemics in between, Fauci saved countless lives by placing science over politics.

Dr. Fauci is disparaged by rightwingers as “Dr. Doom Fauci.” Mayor Holt has faced similar pressures. He must deal with Gov. Kevin Stitt’s dangerously mixed messages. And the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA), a free-market think tank, has pushed a petition, claiming it “appears to fall in line with the recent goals announced by Gov. Kevin Stitt.” The OCPA denigrated “shelter-in-place” orders as “oppressive.” In doing so, it makes the type of simplistic claim which could be doubly dangerous as we navigate the complexities of returning to a more normal economy.

OCPA President Jonathan Small argues that Oklahoma doesn’t face a shortage of hospital beds so there is no “valid reason” for not allowing people to return to work. In fact, a premature attempt to return to normal could spread the virus, undermining the economy, as well as causing avoidable deaths. This will remain especially true until widespread testing for the virus is in place.

Even worse, the Oklahoma Department of Commerce, the Governor’s Council on Workforce Development, the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission, and Stitt have indicated they support policies that could require workers to choose between their health and their income. Worse still, The Frontier reports that Secretary of Commerce and Workforce Development Sean Kouplen is urging employers to report workers “if they refuse a job offer from their former employer as the state begins to reopen.”

As state reopens, Oklahoma workforce leaders discuss asking for end to federal unemployment payments

State encourages businesses to report workers who refuse to return to jobs

Because of Oklahomans’ pre-existing health problems, our state is especially at risk. Like Dr. Fauci, Mayor Holt’s first and probably most important contribution was the decisiveness which kept Oklahoma City from repeating the tragic quarantine delays in Italy, Spain, Detroit, and New Orleans. When the virus peaks, however, more complicated and nuanced decisions must be made. As Charles Duhigg explains in the New Yorker, “Epidemiology is a science of possibilities and persuasion, not of certainty or hard proof.”

Even though it made no sense to open barber shops, hair and nail salons, and spas by May 1 or earlier, nobody knows what is the right timing for reopening the economy. As Holt explains, “May 1st is not a light switch, it is a dimmer.” After expressing his concerns about Stitt’s reopening order, Holt said he intends to monitor data and adjust accordingly, and “If there’s a sudden shift, if there’s a spike, then obviously this experiment has failed and we have to go back to an earlier phase.”

Holt says he wields “a pen, not an army.” He correctly adds that people are choosing to respect public health officials’ expertise. Holt shares the credit for our social distancing successes, “People are staying home because they don’t want to die.” And yes, he was correct in asking, “who in their right mind” would want to end restrictions too early?

Oklahoma City Mayor Holt issues “shelter in place” order effective Sat night

“People are staying at home because they don’t want to die,” Oklahoma mayor stresses importance of social distancing

A Greater Oklahoma City Chamber survey backs the mayor’s appraisal. It found 67 percent of responding businesses cited “employee fear” as the biggest barrier to reopening. Moreover, 37 percent of companies plan to bring employees back in stages, as opposed to 20 percent intending to return their entire staff at once.

Some businesses reopening, others remain closed

Neither Holt nor Fauci know exactly what our next steps should be and when to take them. But, as long as we can learn from their leadership, we can all make wiser decisions.

Across the nation, some are responding to President Trump’s incitements, even bringing automatic weapons into the Michigan capitol to protest that state’s stay-at-home policies and in Stillwater, Ok, threatening violence to to stop the order to wear masks in businesses.

However, the New York Times’ David Brooks offers hope that Americans will listen to leaders like Holt and Fauci. Brooks distinguishes between “weavers and rippers.” He says, “The weavers try to spiritually hold each other so we can get through this together. The rippers, from Donald Trump on down, see everything through the prism of politics and still emphasize division.” Brooks concludes, “Fortunately, the rippers are not winning. America is pretty united right now.”

He cites polls showing that “98 percent of Democrats and 82 percent of Republicans supported social distancing rules,” and that “nearly 90 percent of Americans think a second wave of the virus would be at least somewhat likely if we ended the lockdowns today.”

As Nondoc reported, the early evidence on Oklahoma City’s reopening is mixed. Were it not for Holt’s leadership, however, I wonder how many more Oklahomans would be open to an absurd campaign to discredit “weavers” like Dr. Fauci and the Oklahoma experts who haven’t been able to persuade Stitt to slow down.

John Thompson writes about the latest madness in his home state of Oklahoma:

The shocking headline was that the price of oil dropped to below $1 a barrel. Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt was on the phone with Vice President Mike Pence when he heard the news. The legislature now faces “a loss of $1.3 billion in revenue for appropriation between FY 2020 and FY 2022.”

So, why has Gov. Stitt been talking with Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos about Oklahoma giving some of $40 million of new federal money to private school vouchers?

Even though the Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship Program, a tax credit that raises money for scholarships to private schools, was supposed to expand school choice for low-income students, it has long been known that “families who earn up to three times the income limits for free and reduced priced lunch (a family of four earning $139,000 a year) are eligible for scholarships.”

‘Tough decisions’: Stitt projects $1.3 billion drop, legislators want the math

Increasing the scholarship tax credit hurts public schools and benefits affluent Oklahomans

I’ll save non-Oklahomans the details regarding the range of bipartisan efforts to persuade Stitt to embrace reality. Before the COVID-19 shutdown, it seemed like the legislature, often led by the Teacher Caucus, might be able to counter the completely inexperienced governor’s infatuations with “reforms” that are disconnected from the real world. But, every time one government institution, or grassroots initiative, has successfully pushed back, Stitt finds another, now unguarded, door to Trumpism.

On one hand, Stitt’s effort to ban abortions during the pandemic, claiming that those services are nonessential, was reversed this week by a federal judge. On the other hand, he has ignored the “thousands of Oklahomans (who) have spoken out against the Governor’s health care proposal, which could restrict health care access for up to 200,000 Oklahomans.” Moreover, Stitt has been slow in scheduling the vote on Medicaid expansion. Frustrated by the state leaving billions of dollars of federal money on the table, Oklahomans launched SQ 802 to require the state to accept the Medicaid funding. Stitt hopes that his plan, which imposes a work requirement, will undermine the citizen-led initiative.

Thousands of Oklahomans speak out against Governor’s health care proposal

And Stitt hasn’t given up on his most hopeless fight; ignoring legal advice, he’s still fighting Oklahoma tribes, denying that the compact governing casino gambling automatically renewed in January. In doing so, he placed $130 million in education funding in jeopardy.

So, education is just one area where the politics of destruction are being ramped up so that no disadvantaged families are being left unpunished. Students, especially poor children, have lost months of learning. Schools face new costs for devising virtual learning, not to mention the time and money redesigning schools for a safe reopening. Especially in rural areas, where hospitals have been closing, the challenge of providing basic health services – not to mention virus-related costs – is worsening.

With Possible Student Slump, State Weighs Next Steps

And, yet, the Stitt and the Trump administrations seem committed to a double-barreled blast: subsidizing the flight of families from traditional public schools while cutting their funding. Instead of timely interventions to prevent excessive deaths due to the pandemic, they are launching assaults of education, health, and social services that would hit home next year, when a resurgence of the virus is likely.

I said I wouldn’t bother non-Oklahomans with the details of the Stitt administration’s version of Trumpism, but the headlines keep getting crazier. Because of Oklahomans’ preexisting health problems, our state is especially at risk from the virus. And the Oklahoman reports, “Oklahoma is in the bottom four states for testing for COVID-19, according to an email sent this week by the White House coronavirus task force.” But due to bipartisan leadership of mayors in the Tulsa, Oklahoma City, Norman and other communities, and the way that the public has supported their “shelter-in-place” policies, our confirmed cases and deaths have been lower than expected.

It had been predicted that COVID-19 would peak around April 21, but recent days have seen an increase in infections. So, how did Stitt react?

The next day, Stitt announced the reopening of numerous businesses on Friday, April 24, and more openings on May 1!?!? He implied that the state might try to force cities to comply with his order!

By the way, the New York Times reported that the Oklahoma rightwingers demonstrating for a reopening of business denied any connection with the Trump campaign. But to understand what Attorney General William Barr, Stephen Moore, and Tea Partiers want, the Times says we need to:

Look no further than the first protest organized by the Michigan Conservative Coalition and the Michigan Freedom Fund — whose chairman manages the vast financial investments of Dick and Betsy DeVos, the Education Secretary — to see that the campaign to “open” America flows from the superrich and their front groups.

It’s gotten to the point where the fights picked by Stitt, a few other Republican governors. and the President are incomprehensible even in a time of Trumpism. It’s hard to understand how those policies are anything but Social Darwinism tantrums on steroids, as well as an attempt to reelect Trump, regardless of the human costs.

John Thompson writes here about yet another virtual charter scam, this one in Oklahoma.

He writes:

After years of failing to regulate charters, especially online and for-profit charters, Oklahoma is just one state that illustrates how hard it is to catch up and hold virtual schools accountable for either education outcomes or financial transactions.

In July 2019, according to an Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation search warrant, “[Epic’s co-founders] enticed ghost students to enroll in Epic by offering each student an annual learning fund ranging from $800 to $1,000.” This was despite the fact that Epic knew that the parents of many homeschool students “enrolled their children . . . to receive the $800 learning fund without any intent to receive instruction.”

Epic’s recruitment of “ghost students,” who were technically enrolled but received minimal instruction from teachers, allowed the company to legally divert state funds for their own personal use, while simultaneously hiding low graduation rates to attract more support.

This year, Epic has received over $100 million in taxpayer money. And the company, in an exposé by the Tulsa World, admitted that over the years its “Learning Fund”—which is shielded from public scrutiny—received $50.6 million from the Oklahoma State Department of Education.

Tulsa World estimates the Learning Fund could cost the state about $28 million for 2019-2020. Moreover, the private management company Epic Youth Services receives a “10 percent cut” of the charter’s student funding. Also, state appropriations pay for the millions that Epic spends on advertising and generous contributions to elected officials.

If nothing else, Epic is helping to nail down the case that charters are a tool for privatization.

John Thompson describes a professional development session he attended with other educators in Oklahoma that offered helpful advice about helping students overcome trauma. But he then discusses the real world of students who are exposed to murder and violence, and the good advice seems painfully inadequate. What is needed? More counselors, social workers, psychologists, more resources in schools that are not available now to support students who have had traumatic experiences.

Good advice is cheap. Resources to confront trauma are dear and unavailable.

EPIC virtual charter school is locked in a battle with state auditors over the question of whether public money belongs to the public or to the owners of the school.

Face-Off Between Epic, State Centers on Controversial ‘Learning Fund’

EPIC is a charter school but it’s defense is that it is a private business, not a public agency. How refreshing!

The story:

The state is drawing a hard line: Public education funds that flow to a private company are public.

Founders of the state’s largest online charter school are fighting to shield those funds. Their company has refused to comply with subpoenas from the State Auditor and Inspector.

The showdown is headed to court and could have major ramifications for Epic Charter Schools and its for-profit management company, Epic Youth Services, both of which have drawn controversy since inception a decade ago.

At the heart of the issue is something Epic calls the “learning fund.” It’s a major draw for students and families and has helped propel Epic’s stunning enrollment growth.

Here’s how it works: Epic makes at least $1,000 available to each student annually in the student’s learning fund. Dollars are deducted for their choice of curriculum and for a plethora of other items of their choice, such as laptops and iPads, science kits and craft supplies, soccer club fees, horseback riding lessons, gymnastics and summer camps.

Parents don’t receive the money directly but instead request a purchase from Epic. Epic transfers the money to Epic Youth Services, according to the court filing, which then pays the vendors directly. There are more than 1,400 private learning-fund vendors.

The school makes periodic transfers of state funding into a checking account specifically for learning fund purchases. The school transfers into a separate checking account 10% of its total revenue to Epic Youth Services for a management fee.

Epic Charter School co-founder Ben Harris is seen at a board meeting in Oklahoma City on Oct. 16, 2019. (Whitney Bryen/Oklahoma Watch)
Epic was founded by David Chaney and Ben Harris; the two men also own Epic Youth Services LLC. Chaney and Harris have split at least $10 million in profits from Epic Youth Services between 2013 and 2018, according to the OSBI, which is investigating Chaney and Harris on allegations of embezzlement and racketeering.

Chaney and Harris have denied wrongdoing, and no charges have been filed. Through an attorney, they responded to the auditor’s court motion with a written statement.

“The state Auditor’s legal position – that private businesses are subject to state audit – should concern every business owner in Oklahoma. Epic Youth Services has offered to voluntarily allow the auditor to review records appropriate to their request, but we have received no response prior to this court filing. We will vigorously fight for the protection that has historically been provided to private businesses like Epic Youth Services.”