It has not, to put it mildly, been a good couple months for David Chaney and Ben Harris, co-founders of Epic Charter Schools, Oklahoma’s largest virtual charter school.
Launched in 2011, Epic has enjoyed explosive growth. It enrolled over 21,000 students in 2018-19, making it larger than the state’s fifth largest school district. It operates online programs statewide and three centers that blend virtual and in-person learning in Oklahoma City and Tulsa.
Epic’s growth has been fueled by aggressive marketing campaigns, bonuses and gifts to help recruit students, and teacher contracts with bonuses that allow its highest-paid teachers to reach annual pay of over $100,000. This growth has now attracted intense scrutiny of its business model and operations.
In June, Oklahoma Watch reported on a lawsuit filed by several Epic teachers alleging that the school has, for years, encouraged teachers to push for the withdrawal of low-performing students to help improve its performance measures.
A week later, an Oklahoman article revealed that over one-quarter of Epic’s students were automatically disenrolled for missing 10 consecutive school days, more than double the statewide average, a pattern that also artificially aids the school’s assessment on annual A-F report cards. Even so, Epic high school received an F in overall performance on their 2018-19 school report card, while the middle school earned a C and elementary school earned a D.
Next came a press release from State Sen. Ron Sharp questioning why Epic’s blended charter school received state funding allocations for grade levels the school has acknowledged it did not provide instruction for over two years.
Then most dramatically, in July, the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation filed an affidavit against Chaney and Harris alleging them of embezzling more than $10 million between 2013 and 2018. The main accusations involve enrolling "ghost students," some of whom are also home-schooled or attending private schools. Epic is also being investigated by the FBI and federal Department of Education. Chaney and Harris have benefitted through their control of Epic Youth Services, a for-profit affiliate that receives 10 percent of Epic’s total revenue to provide its management services—an amount now exceeding $11 million a year.
So far no criminal charges have been filed and Epic has strenuously denied all accusations of wrongdoing.
Until recently, the Legislature and State Department of Education have been slow to enact appropriate oversight and accountability over Epic and other virtual charter schools, but this year saw passage of HB 1395 that will hold virtual charter schools to the same financial reporting requirements as brick and mortar schools. It also requires charter management organizations like Epic Youth Services to detail how it spends money on behalf of the school and adds some additional safeguards. We can expect the 2020 legislative session to include additional reform measures, including efforts to either abolish the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board or place it under the authority of the State Department of Education.
We are also seeing more public school districts develop their own virtual alternatives. Recently, the Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administration launched the Blended Learning Framework, which includes guidelines for selecting and training teachers, recommendations for identifying students likely to succeed in a blended/virtual environment, and guidelines for choosing beneficial technology resources.
High demand for virtual and blended education suggests they fill a need to serve students who don’t respond well in traditional classroom settings. But the lesson of Epic suggests that when schools are operated as profit-making ventures, the interest of students won’t come first.
David Blatt is Executive Director of Oklahoma Policy Institute, okpolicy.org