Archives for category: Oklahoma

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.”

Nancy Shively is a special education teacher in Oklahoma. She is a lifelong Republican. She voted for Trump in 2016. She now knows this was a huge mistake that has put her life and the lives of her colleagues at risk. She has switched her registration to independent and will vote for Joe Biden this time.

Her vote for Trump, she fears, may have been tantamount to signing her death warrant.

She writes:

I live and teach in a small Oklahoma town. It’s not far from the site of President Trump’s Tulsa campaign rally on June 20 that appears, as common sense would have predicted, to be a super-spreader event. About two weeks after the rally, Tulsa County reported a record high number of cases…

I am over 60, with two autoimmune diseases. This outbreak has me worried as it is. Now, with the prospect of schools reopening in a few short weeks, I am terrified.

And I am not the only one. One young teacher I know has chronic kidney problems and is at high risk for complications if she contracts COVID-19. She can’t quit her only source of income. Taking its cue from our governor, who hosted Trump’s rally and has now tested positive for COVID-19 himself, her school district has announced that wearing a mask will be optional, though the state is considering requiring it…

Our country has long devalued and underpaid teachers, refusing to adequately fund the public schools that support our democracy. At the same time, teachers routinely have to use their own money to buy classroom supplies. Now the government is turning to us to risk our health or possibly our lives during a pandemic. My school district has no mask mandate and two nurses for more than 2,400 students in 5 school buildings. How is that going to work?…

Teaching is a calling and Oklahoma teachers are as tough as they come. Some have sheltered their students as a tornado ripped the school building from over their heads. Most of us would do anything to help our students succeed.

So now the man I gambled on to be president is asking us to risk our health and our very lives. The odds are most definitely not in our favor.

John Thompson, historian and retired teacher in Oklahoma, contributes frequently here.

He writes:

If you want to get really depressed about today’s politics, look at the New York Times’ Upshot, which asked: Should Children Go Back to School? Sadly, the answer has been, “It depends in part on your politics.”

One source the Times cited was a Brookings Institute analysis of data which found that “politics, more than public health, was driving school districts’ reopening plans.” Brookings discovered:

No relationship between school districts’ plans and their counties’ infection rates. Instead, there was a strong correlation between a district’s plans and a county’s support for Mr. Trump in 2016.

We should all be horrified that President Trump and his supporters have put ideology and short term politics over the health of students. When we get through this nightmare, deep soul searching will be necessary as we ask how our politics have devolved to this point.

Below is a step towards such a reckoning. It uses Oklahoma, a “red state” in terms of Republican power, which has become a “red zone” in terms of infection spread, as a case study. White House reports that were not revealed to the public until recently, now show that Oklahoma has the nation’s 8th highest positivity rate.

Eight White House Corona Virus Task Force reports on Oklahoma’s COVID infections were finally released on August 25. As many parents send their kids back to in-person school, they now can read the full truth that could have been revealed almost two months ago about what safe reopenings would require.

This is how Oklahomans finally got access to crucial public health information. The Tulsa World reported that on August 13, before Coronavirus Response Coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx visited Tulsa, Gov. Kevin Stitt said he directed the state Health Department “to post everything and be as transparent as possible.” But, a week later, The Center for Public Integrity published a second, secret report; Tulsa Mayor Bynum thus learned that “eight White House reports had been issued. Bynum said he was only aware of one that had been previously leaked to the media.”

Dr. Birx met briefly with numerous members of the Stitt team and a few others, but without key public health leaders, such as Tulsa Health Department director Bruce Dart, Democratic officeholders, or the press, and she also met privately with Stitt. The governor said, “Overall it went really good, and she’s pleased with Oklahoma and what we’ve done so far.”

State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister posted on Facebook that Birx warned, “Oklahoma is about 4 weeks behind the South” and needs to “avoid asymptomatic spread which is happening in Southern states.” That cryptic comment didn’t make the headlines, or prompt a discussion of how would it be possible to reopen schools in counties where the virus was spreading.

Stitt characterized Birx’s advice as, “A lot of other states have shut down bars. That was a recommendation — it wasn’t a recommendation, but that was something she said, you’ve got to be ready if you see your positivities kick up that you can maybe limit bar capacity.”

Tulsa Public Radio challenged spin on the crucial question of how schools and colleges can open this month, adding, “Birx’s task force has, in fact, told Oklahoma it should shut down bars statewide, calling it ‘critical to disrupt transmission.’”

As school was starting, about 50 school sites were dealing with COVID infections; the first week of partial reopening, the number rose to over 100. If – as public health experts predict – asymptomatic children spread the virus to their classmates, teachers and school staff, and their families, parents should ask why they were not warned when Oklahoma entered the “red zone” around July 14.

Similarly, administrators can ask how they could have prepared differently for reopenings if they had been told about the effect of “community spread” on schools. The week before classes were scheduled to open, two school systems had to delay in-person instruction. Who knows how many of those wrenching adjustments will occur in the first weeks of school?

If they had known the full story presented in eight studies, many districts could have prioritized preparation for virtual over in-person instruction. Had administrators been told of the August 2 task force recommendation for a statewide mask mandate, and recommendations as early as July 5 on bars and indoor dining, would they have given different advice to their school boards on reopening? Had they known when the task force recommended that red zone counties limit social gatherings to ten people, would they have thought differently about school sports?

Administrators were already behind in preparing for school because as late as June many researchers still doubted that young people would spread the virus as much as older persons. It wasn’t until late July that experts were fully aware of the super-spreading by young people. And I would add that decision-makers should have considered the New York Times database. It estimated that on July 31 an average Oklahoma County school with 1,000 students would begin the year with 11 students with the virus.

Also, on July 23, the State Board of Education voted 4 to 3 to adopt the protocols presented by State Superintendent Hofmeister as recommendations – not mandates. Had they known what would be revealed in the recent recommendations for Oklahoma, would they have voted differently in terms of making masks mandatory in schools? Had the SDE guidelines on providing only virtual learning been discussed in communities that were fully aware of the task force’s recommendations on limiting the size of social groups, would they have thought differently about closing schools in the counties with the highest infections?

State Impact and the Oklahoman now report that only six of the 136 districts in counties at Orange Level 2 or the higher are starting the year with distance learning. The SDE can only “beg” districts to take unpopular public health actions and only 1/3rd of them mandate masks for students and teachers.

So shouldn’t the Board take another vote? And while they’re at it, they could order districts to report COVID infections to the Health Department.

Moreover, education and urban leaders, as well as state policy-makers should study the new reports within the context of perhaps a bigger threat – the reopening of colleges. Cities have no control over universities’ policies, but especially in areas that attract large numbers of college students who have failed to follow social distancing rules, cities could follow federal guidelines on closing bars and in-person dining. And if state leaders took these public health regulations seriously, they could have taken action with the hugely dangerous Weedstock concert near Oklahoma State University.

This summer’s misstatements of fact by the Stitt administration were serious because they undermined preparations for a safe reopening of schools. During a time of “alt facts,” however, it isn’t surprising that many Oklahomans didn’t demand fact checking of the governor. The release of the full facts occurs at a time when students are placed at risk, and schools will likely struggle with infections. Now that the full task force findings are released, parents, educators, and policy makers may bring a more informed mindset to their guidelines.
More importantly, though, will we take a more morally responsible look at the politics of school reopenings? Will we come to grips with the way that America placed politics over the health and safety of our kids, and pledge to never do that again?

John Thompson is a historian and retired teacher in Oklahoma.

He writes:

The McAlester Public Schools are in the Oklahoma county where COVID is now #1 in the state in per capita COVID infections. A week before the scheduled opening, McAlester reports five positives linked to football. But its schools will still provide in-person instruction.

This is just one of 50 schools with infections on the eve of their reopening in a state which had had a low infection rate, but that is now in the “Red Zone,” with more than 100 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people. We must finally ask why responsible leaders, such as the mayors of Oklahoma City and Tulsa, are so unwilling to challenge Trumpian true-believers who undermined science-based public health actions, even as a crisis is clearly unfolding.

A week ago, I hoped to communicate with some of the adults in the room – who I know understand that a second burst of COVID is virtually inevitable. So, I started with a joke, borrowing from the late political Oklahoma humorist, James Boren, who used to say, “When in doubt mumble.”

Trying to persuade, I noted that medical experts and responsible political leaders must always wrestle with doubts. And when their audiences are President Donald Trump and Gov. Kevin Stitt, the ability to mumble something in order to not sound disagreeable becomes an essential skill.

For example, the Coronavirus Response Coordinator, Dr. Deborah Birx, made a “highly touted stop” in Tulsa on August 16th, but it was a private meeting. Public health experts were almost as unrepresented as the press and Democratic officeholders; Dr. Bruce Dart, the director of the Tulsa Health Department, wasn’t invited. Dr. Birx only took five or six questions but at least she warned that Oklahoma may be “a month behind seeing asymptomatic spread happening in other southern states.”

“Asymptomatic spread,” thy name could be classrooms of children returning to public schools and dorms and bars full of returning college students. And what is happening in other southern states (like Texas, Georgia, and Florida) is frightening – perhaps too tragic to say out loud.

Birx didn’t answer press questions as she left. Since she met privately for 45 minutes with Gov. Stitt, there was little opportunity to cross examine his claim, “Overall it went really good, and she’s pleased with Oklahoma and what we’ve done so far.” Oklahomans were told little about her warning about asymptomatic spread beyond Stitt’s characterization of her words, “A lot of other states have shut down bars. That was a recommendation — it wasn’t a recommendation, but that was something she said, you’ve got to be ready if you see your positivities kick up that you can maybe limit bar capacity.”

One of the few media outlets, Tulsa Public Radio, which challenged spin on the crucial question of how schools and colleges can open this month, drew upon a previous study and added, “Birx’s task force has, in fact, told Oklahoma it should shut down bars statewide, calling it ‘critical to disrupt transmission.’”

But now that The Center for Public Integrity has published the latest White House Coronavirus Task Force secret report, we know the truth. We are learning what our leaders know and when did they know it. Now that these facts are no longer need to be mumbled, we must look in the mirror and ask tough questions about ourselves and the leaders, including those we have trusted. Before summarizing the report’s key points, more context could be helpful.

Oklahoma’s press has always had reasons to be reluctant to challenge the power structure, so it was no surprise that it was an editorial columnist, as opposed to an investigative reporter, who explicitly revealed a part of the story that intimidates reporters and politicians. The Tulsa World’s Ginnie Graham reminded us, “Dr. George Monks stepped into the role of president of the Oklahoma State Medical Association, requiring him speak truth to the powerful and dubious.”

Gov. Stitt had said that “Oklahoma had ‘plenty of runway’ to respond to virus surges.” But Dr. Monk said “a COVID-19 patient waited a day for the “one and only” hospital bed in Tulsa: “We are at the end of the runway.”

Graham reminded us, “some doctors once promoted smoking as healthy and the anti-vaccine movement finds physicians to back their position.” But Monks says, “We should always tell the truth, even if it hurts.”

As time runs out for reducing the size of the imminent crisis, The Frontier, a nonprofit media corporation, reported that former interim state epidemiologist, Dr. Aaron Wendelboe, said that local mask mandates are likely contributing to the current downward trend of new infections. But a reopening of in-person schools and extracurricular activities such as sports will likely increase transmissions. Similarly, Dr. Dale Bratzler, who leads the University of Oklahoma’s coronavirus response, said that they will make outbreaks “almost inevitable.” Bratzler advised, “I think we need to watch very, very carefully what happens in the state because we may need to rethink some of these policies on reopening if we see some of these outbreaks occur.”

Mask mandates appear to be helping Oklahoma control its coronavirus outbreak

Those careful words can’t be dismissed as mumbling, but neither were they headline grabbers. To understand their relative lack of influence, the public must read the Oklahoma Watch account of how Dr. Wendelboe was the second of three state epidemiologists since this March. It cited his predecessor, Dr. Kristy Bradley, who explained, “we had been practicing and developing and fine-tuning that public health playbook in Oklahoma for years and years.” But the governor’s new team “just sort of kept it on the shelf and didn’t dust it off.”

Bradley and Wendelboe had extensive experience with epidemics ranging from Zika to Ebola. But Wendelboe said “his role was to give epidemiological advice, but with the knowledge that leaders have other considerations like the economy or disruptions to daily life to also take into account.” Oklahoma Watch (also a nonprofit) explains:

“There’s many decisions that are being made from different angles,” he said. “I think it’s hard for a state epidemiologist to sometimes know how to navigate some of the factors that are outside the straight epidemiological training. I’ve tried to be really respectful when people don’t take my advice. I understand that there’s other things that I’m not privy to.”

As Pandemic Widens, Oklahoma Diminishes State Epidemiologist Role – Oklahoma Watch

In contrast to fact-based analyses in The Frontier, State Impact (an NPR collaborative), and Oklahoma Watch, the Oklahoman published “Keeping Schools Closed Will Do More Harm Than Good,” an editorial by the Heartland Institute’s Chris Talgo. Since the Oklahoman has a paywall, the best way to understand his argument is to follow the link to Inside Sources, “Keeping Schools Closed Will Do More Harm Than Good.” Talgo says that there are multiple reasons to reopen schools, but:

“They might not because teachers unions and politicians oppose it for their own self-interest. Teachers unions throughout the nation are making outrageous demands before they return to their jobs. This includes defunding the police, “Medicare for All,” huge salary increases and several other requirements that have little to do with improving the educational environment.”

Shockingly, several teachers unions have announced they will not return to work unless and until “a moratorium on private school” is implemented.

In fairness, the Oklahoman also published an editorial opposing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s attempt to grant schools, businesses and healthcare providers immunity from coronavirus-related lawsuits. And within a week, the Oklahoman quoted Dr. David Kendrick of the OU School of Medicine about the “new phase” we are entering, “We had four months now without the impact of primary, secondary and university education on the possibility of transmission. … As schools are opening, we are going to have to give that a big, hard look.”

Counterpoint: Ditching Accountability for Schools Should Get Failing Grade

So, I will still mumble support for experts who try to be as candid as allowed when advising politicians. But we now know what the Coronavirus Task Force was actually recommending when Dr. Birx was visiting on August 16. The high points, which are the opposite of what the governor claims, include:

Mask mandate needs to be implemented statewide to decrease community transmission.
Bars must be closed, and indoor dining must be restricted in yellow and red zone counties and metro areas.
In red zones, limit the size of social gatherings to 10 or fewer people; in yellow zones, limit social gatherings to 25 or fewer people.

And that brings us back to the issue of government leaders who would like to do the right thing, but they don’t dare articulate what they know is likely true. Ideology-driven officials demanded that we place the short-term benefit of bars and other businesses over our students, making it impossible to safely reopen schools. Many compliant public schools and colleges are leading us to a tragedy.

The premature reopening imposed on communities quickly drove our state’s seven-day average of daily infections from 69 on June 1 to 1,089 on August 1. Since then, our previously effective leaders have gone along with sound bites about a downward curve, ignoring the experts’ warnings about what would happen as schools reopened.

As I wrote this, yesterday’s infections were announced – 1,077.

Then, it was also revealed that Mayor Bynum just learned from Birx that “eight White House reports had been issued. He said he was only aware of one that had been previously leaked to the media.” Stitt then agreed that “he will ask that the White House reports be made publicly available to everyone.”

If the full truth about reopening schools – which should have been revealed more than two months earlier – is released as students are going back to in-person classes, and infections are spread, parents should demand more than mumbling from the governor.

Stitt bows to pressure to release White House reports on coronavirus

Emily Harris teaches A.P. U.S. History at Will Rogers High School in Tulsa. She writes here about her faith in the public schools. She is concerned that some students have enrolled in the EPIC virtual charter school, which has a horrible record and operates for profit.

I am a teacher at Will Rogers High School. My husband, John, is a teacher at Nathan Hale High School. We are proud our 1-year-old son, Andrew, will become a fourth-generation Tulsa Public Schools student. As generations of our family have done before us, we will choose Tulsa Public Schools. My grandmother is a Central Brave. My father-in-law is a Will Rogers Roper. My mother is a Hale Ranger. My father, husband, sisters and I are Edison Eagles.

Our public schools are part of the fabric of what makes us Tulsans. Many of you reading this can say the same about your family. These schools have history. They have tradition. They have proud alumni. We cannot give up on them.

Tulsa Public Schools began the 2019-2020 school year planning for a $20 million budget shortfall caused by years of improper state funding and declining enrollment. Despite more than a decade of underfunding, many Tulsa Public Schools teachers have persisted in challenging working conditions. These teachers know what it is like to face obstacles and overcome them for hope that all students will reach their full potential. Tulsa Public Schools teachers will carry the same tenacity and spirit of optimism with them as they take on the challenges presented to them this school year.

The Tulsa Public Schools of my parents’ generation did not have to compete for students with suburban districts and online charter schools. Recent reports show that Epic, an all virtual charter school founded in 2011, is seeing a recent surge in enrollment. It has now surpassed Oklahoma City and Tulsa to become our state’s largest school district. Epic Charter Schools may sound like an appealing option to parents in the short term, but data from an Oklahoma Watch investigation in 2019 showed that only 14.7% of Epic graduates enrolled in an Oklahoma public college or university compared to 43.6% of Tulsa Public Schools graduates. This is concerning as it points to the assumption that Epic’s model is more about compliance to meet graduation standards rather than preparation for a student’s life beyond K-12 education.

Epic is contributing to declining enrollment in Tulsa Public Schools. The result is critical state funding being siphoned away from traditional public schools. Unlike Tulsa Public Schools, Epic is a statewide school district, and does not serve as a pillar of our community. When our community supports Tulsa Public Schools, they are undoubtedly making a worthwhile investment in the future of Tulsa….

Here’s what I do know for certain: I will spend each day working in my empty classroom on the fourth floor of Will Rogers High School. I will do my best with technology to teach American history and serve Tulsa students from a distance. I will work with my talented colleagues to collaborate and come up with creative solutions to challenging and unprecedented issues. We will carry with us a mindset to serve students first.

I choose Tulsa Public Schools, and I will continue to serve Tulsa students for many years ahead. The possibility of a truly equitable Tulsa community for all depends on your support of our public school system. I assure you, my students’ hopes and dreams are worth it. Teachers cannot wait for the day when we get to see our students in person. Until then, I ask that you please have faith in teachers. Have faith in Tulsa Public Schools.

This story was posted in Garrison Keillor’s “The Writers’ Almanac.”

Dr. Michael Shadid established the first cooperatively owned and operated hospital in the United States on this date in 1931. Shadid had been born in a mountain village in Lebanon, and knew firsthand how hard it was for the poor to get good health care. He was one of 12 kids, and only three of them survived infancy. The only medical care that the village received was the occasional visit from a Beirut doctor. Shadid was inspired to get medical training himself. He went to New York when he was 16, working as a peddler to save money for his education. Ten years later, after earning his medical degree at Washington University in Saint Louis, Shadid settled in Elk City, Oklahoma.

As medical technology advanced, the cost of medical care rose, and few people felt the hardship more than Oklahoma farmers. “There must exist some unknown germ, some filterable virus unknown to man, that bites certain persons in this world and turns them into reformers,” Shadid later wrote. “I’m willing to admit that I must have been bitten early and hard.” Using as his model the established Oklahoma tradition of farm cooperatives, Shadid envisioned a cooperative hospital that would be supported by the farmers’ annual membership fees. Doctors would be paid a salary out of those fees, and in return they would provide basic preventive care that poor farmers were not usually able to afford. But other local doctors were worried about losing their business. They wrote in to the newspapers accusing Shadid of fraud, and calling him a foreigner who was trying to tell Americans how to manage their health care system, even though by now he’d been in the country for 30 years. He almost lost his medical license for the unethical solicitation of patients. Doctors were reluctant to work for the Community Hospital if it meant defying the medical establishment. But the farmers who relied on the hospital rallied behind Shadid. “We think more of the few dollars invested in the Community Hospital than any investment we have ever made,” said one farmer. “I think this bunch fighting [Shadid] should be sat down so hard it would jar their ancestors for four generations.”