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Senator Sharp Targeted In Opposition Research


January 24, 2019

Senator Ron Sharp

A career teacher turned state senator is apparently being targeted for his concerns about charter schools and their impact on public education in Oklahoma.

Sen. Ron Sharp, who taught more than 30 years in Shawnee Schools before retiring to run for the State Senate, has been stripped of his longtime education committee vice chairmanship and singled out for opposition research despite the fact he's not up for re-election until 2020.

These actions came in recent weeks as Sharp continued to ask questions about virtual charter schools and introduced seven bills that would address funding mechanisms, attendance accountability and other areas of concern expressed by public school administrators he has been working with.

"We must increase accountability and oversight of our state's four public virtual charter schools," Sharp said in his weekly column to newspapers just before Christmas.

Just a few weeks earlier, both the Shawnee Public Schools administration and the county received Open Records requests regarding Sharp. Shawnee Superintendent Dr. April Grace confirmed that her office received a request for "the existence of Mr. Sharp's initial application for employment and any final disciplinary action."

The request was signed by Jamie Proser, a person they couldn't locate online.

Assistant Superintendent Brent Houston responded to the request with these words: "Dr. Sharp began his employment with Shawnee Public Schools in August 1974. He notified our district of his intent to retire in July 2012 after 38 years of teaching high school social studies. His teaching certificate is #103709 is valid through June 2019."

That response was signed for by Jerome Trankle, who is with Axiom Research Group, which controls Cannon Research Group. The Missouri Times reported the acquisition of the Cannon group, describing Axiom as "the largest Republican consulting firm in the country."

The records request to the county was addressed to the "Pottawatomie County Police Department" and asked for "all citations, fines, inspections, violations or other negative evaluations issued to or against" Sharp. It was signed by Ronnie Gransky, who also could not be located online.

Melissa Dennis, chairman of the county commissioners at the time, said the county decided not to respond after determining that "was a bogus name and a bogus address."

Employing a high-powered and expensive political consulting firm two years in advance of an election is unusual, and would be quite expensive.

Meanwhile, as Sharp was preparing his legislation, new Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat was preparing his committee assignments. Although Sharp had been vice chairman of the education committee for some time, Treat moved him this year to the judiciary committee.

Named chairman of the education committee was Sen. Gary Stanislawski, who has been a champion of virtual charter schools. He authored the Virtual Charter School Act in 2010 and then authored an amendment creating the State Virtual Charter School Board, which was "logrolled" into a 2012 textbook funding appropriation.

He also authored a bill in 2017 that would allow charter school students living within a traditional public school district to participate in the extracurricular activities of that district. The bill failed in committee. For the upcoming session, he had a bill to allow funds from the five mil building levy to be appropriated to charter school districts, even though they do not have buildings.

The largest virtual charter school system in the state is Epic Charter Schools with 14,000 students, which makes it the 11th largest district in the state. Students work from home but are assigned to teachers, who are paid well above what ordinary classroom teachers make and earn bonuses for student recruitment and retention as well as student success.

Students' families receive an educational fund of several hundred dollars to pay for computers, dance classes, sports, even roller skating.

Although the schools receive state funding, from the same pot as traditional public schools, Epic is a for-profit company. Ben Harris and David Chaney are the brains behind the operation, which is patterned after a similar program in Florida that came under investigation in 2003 for alleged bribery. No charges were filed.

Epic has recently expanded to California, where it is again under investigation. And in 2013, then-Gov. Mary Fallin asked for an investigation into allegations of fraud. The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation spent a year looking into it and turned its findings over to the Attorney General. There have been no charges or announcements since then, but recently the OSBI said it is "re-interviewing" some of those involved, according to Oklahoma Watch.

Epic officials and their families have made significant campaign contributions to Treat, the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, the Governor and the Attorney General as well as other legislative candidates.


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