Archives for category: Virtual Charter Schools

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bill Phillis, founder of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding reports that an ECOT insider has agreed to help the state in its effort to recoup some of the millions it lost by paying the low-performing virtual charter school for almost 20 years.

He writes:

Former ECOT treasurer willing to help press state claims against the ECOT Man, William Lager


The Attorney General asked the court to approve a settlement with the former treasurer of ECOT according to a memorandum filed by the Attorney General. The settlement would drop charges against the former ECOT treasurer in exchange for her providing evidence for the state’s case against Bill Lager, the ECOT Man. The former treasurer has indicated that ECOT’s board was not apprised of its legal rights and relevant facts when it approved contracts with Lager’s companies.


The claims against Lager pursuant to illegal contracts total $161,602,806. Lager also bilked the taxpayers more than $100 million for funds wrongfully received from the state. Over the nearly two decades of collecting money for phantom students, ECOT’s illegal “take” might have been in the hundreds of millions.


In the charter industry, boards are typically puppets whose strings are pulled by the charter operator. This is a typical scenario: a profit seeking individual or group shops for a sponsor. After being authorized (sponsored), the individual/group sets up a charter school and appoints a board. In most cases, the board is controlled by the operator-just the opposite of what the relationship ought to be.


State officials (governors, legislators, auditors, attorney generals, state superintendents and Ohio Department of Education personnel) should be embarrassed that they didn’t nip this ECOT fraud in the bud. ECOT is the tip of the iceberg in charter fraud. Charter students have been robbed of high quality educational opportunities and the taxpayers have been bilked via the charter industry. State officials have enacted legislation that permits such corruption.

Businessman William Lager launched “The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow” in 2000. Over nearly 20 years, he collected $1 billion from the taxpayers of Ohio, despite the fact that ECOT had the lowest graduation rate in the nation, high attrition, and low scores. Lager created related businesses to which he gave contracts for services. In 2019, he declared bankruptcy rather than pay multimillion dollar fines to the state because of inflated enrollments. Jeb Bush was a commencement speaker one year, Governor Kasich another year. It was great while it lasted: for Lager.

Bill Phillis of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Inadequacy writes:

The ECOT Man: no fiduciary responsibility and no conflict of interest.

William Lager, the ECOT Man, is being sued by the state for recovery of funds ECOT gained illegally. Lager created Altair Learning Management to manage ECOT along with IQ Innovation support services. He also engaged a company owned by his daughter for public relations purposes.

In a recent filing with the court, Mr. Lager argues that no conflict of interest existed in this arrangement.


He founded ECOT, Altair and IQ Innovation. Lager’s daughter’s PR firm provided services for marketing and PR. No conflict of interest here!
Mr. Lager also argues that in his role in the operation of ECOT, he had no fiduciary responsibility. He says he had no access to or authority over the public funds ECOT received.


Right!

Lager did make some legitimate points in his filing that should be of interest to taxpayers. He indicates that ECOT had received awards for excellence from the State Auditor and that State Auditor had been a graduation speaker at ECOT.


That state officials have been negligent in holding charter operators accountable is well known.

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.


Tom Ultican, retired teacher of physics and advanced mathematics, has been studying the spread of the fake “reform” efforts across the nation (aka the Destroy Public Education Movement).

In this post, he reviews the damage done by authoritarian education “leaders” who have robbed students and teachers of the joy of learning while attacking public schools. He names names.

He begins:

For more than two decades, bureaucratic style top down education “reform” has undermined improvement efforts by professional educators. For budding teachers, beginning in college with the study of education and their own personal experience as students, an innate need to better education develops. However, in the modern era, that teacher energy to improve education has been sapped by the desperate fight to save public education from “reformers,” to protect their profession from amateurs and to defend the children in their classrooms from profiteers. 

Genuine advancements in educational practices come from the classroom. Those edicts emanating from government offices or those lavishly financed and promoted by philanthropies are doomed to failure...

Sadly, every business and government sponsored education innovation for the past 40 years has resulted in harm to American schools. Standardized education, standardized testing, charter schools, school choice, vouchers, reading science, math and reading first, common core, value added measures to assess teachers and schools, mandatory third grade retention, computer based credit recovery, turnaround schools, turnaround districts, and more have been foisted on schools. None of these ideas percolated up from the classroom and all are doing harm.

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.”

I have posted many times about the corruption embedded in the for-profit virtual charter industry. The founder of Pennsylvania’s largest virtual charter school was sentenced to prison for misappropriating $8 million. The single biggest scam in U.S. history involved an online charter chain in California called A3, whose owners managed to make $50 million in state funding disappear. The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) in Ohio collected $1 billion over its nearly two decades, its owner paid his companies for supplying services, he made generous gifts to elected officials, but ECOT declared bankruptcy in 2018 to avoid repaying the state for phantom students. The stories of corruption, embezzlement, and scamming go on and on.

Therefore I was delighted to find this excellent summary by journalist Florina Rodov, who gathers many of the scandals and research reports in one place to demonstrate the woeful failure of virtual charters. As she points out, the virtual charter industry has beefed up its already massive marketing budget to take advantage of the pandemic and try to gather market share.

One detail that I found fascinating was the link to executive compensation for K12 Inc., the for-profit virtual chain that has the largest enrollment in the nation. The top five executives receive a total of $28 million in compensation. Beats teaching!

She begins:

“Instead of going to school every morning, what if school could come to you?” an ad asks enticingly, promising students “online personalized learning” tailored to their specific needs. It’s one of hundreds of active Facebook ads run by K12 Inc., the largest for-profit virtual charter school provider in the United States. As public schools rose to the challenge of educating students online during the pandemic, corporations like K12 Inc., whose stock price has been climbing since mid-March, were licking their chops at the prospect of moving kids online permanently. Though virtual charter schools perform dismally academically and are plagued by scandal, the goal is for them to replace traditional brick-and-mortar public schools in an effort to privatize education. While this would harm students, it would most egregiously damage Black and Latino children, who’ve already been disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus, due to structural inequities such as lack of access to computers and internet service, as well as inconsistent health care and crowded housing.

The article has many important links and I urge you to read it in full. The virtual charter industry has the full-throated support of Betsy DeVos, who lied about their results at her confirmation hearings in 2017, claiming they had 100% graduation rates, when their graduation rates are abysmal.

Nancy Bailey writes that the best way to fire Betsy DeVos is to vote for Biden and Harris.

She writes:

If you’re Democrat or Republican, and you care about public education, vote for V.P. Joe Biden to remove Education Secretary Betsy DeVos from the U.S. Department of Education! Four more years of Betsy DeVos means the end of public education.

With a President Biden, public schools have a chance of surviving. With a President Trump, they don’t. It’s as simple as that.

You may be thinking, Democratic leadership has failed public education in the past. Many were disappointed in the Obama administration’s Race to the Top.

Once there’s a President Biden, the country can remind him of this. But the odds of losing our schools with a President Biden is less of a worry now than leaving DeVos in her perch at the U.S. Department of Education.

There are dozens of reasons to check the Biden/Harris ticket. Public schools affect every other issue on the ballot, every issue we face as a nation. Democratic public schools are the backbone of the nation.

She goes on to explain why we all should be worried about the damage Trump and DeVos can do if given four more years to transfer public funds to non-public schools.

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.