Sharp Reviews His Fight For Transparancy
October 22, 2020
The State Auditor recently released the first part of the audit of Epic Charter Schools. The last few years have been extremely frustrating for me as I've tried to bring this misuse of state funds to light and filed numerous bills to improve accountability and transparency of virtual charter schools' use of state funds. Not surprising because of the strong lobbying presence at the state Capitol, most of my bills were never heard.
I'm relieved that more legislators and state officials have finally taken this matter seriously to stop the misuse of hundreds of millions of state tax dollars. As I step away from public office, I can rest knowing there are other great public servants willing to stop this madness. I especially want to thank Rep. Sheila Dills of Tulsa as she has worked tirelessly the last two years to improve accountability and transparency. We need more legislators to step up and fight to protect taxpayer dollars in our education system.
I've been wronged numerous times for my work to uncover Epic's questionable financial dealings, but this audit justifies my concerns as I expect the federal and state investigations will as well.
My criticism has never been directed against virtual education or Epic's teachers, but only the misuse of state and federal funds by the school's owners and administration.
Their response to the audit was typical. According to them, the State Auditor, like I have also been accused, is lying and dramatizing their actions. They also are now saying the legislature needs to fix the "loopholes" and the audit isn't accurate. Epic isn't the only charter school in the state, yet most other charter schools have never been investigated or audited - because they know right from wrong. They're not trying to make money off their school, but instead are focused on the success of their students, and they are to be applauded for that.
In recent years, I've worked tirelessly trying to educate the public, the media, the Department of Education (who mostly remained silent on my inquiries until last year) and my legislative colleagues.
I had the most education experience in the Oklahoma Senate during my first term since I was a 38-year retired public school teacher. I was the vice chair of the Senate Education Committee for several years and typically one eventually becomes the chairman. Ironically, the person chosen to chair the committee wasn't one of our chamber's former teachers or school administrators, but the author of the bill creating Oklahoma's virtual charters. He is a former Air Force pilot and school board member, who now owns a financial planning firm.
After I started questioning how charter schools were working, especially Epic, and filing legislation to increase accountability and transparency of virtual and traditional charters, I was completely removed from the committee in 2018. Coincidence? Today, of the 15 members, eight have no educational background. I was replaced as vice chair by a Navy pilot and real estate broker with no educational experience. We have plenty of current or former educators and school administrators in the Senate to fill this committee, so why are those individuals not on the committee?
Fortunately, I got to stay on the Appropriations Subcommittee for Education to continue sharing my expertise.
In 2018, I filed two bills (SB895 and SB1090) requiring virtual charter schools to report graduation rates and prohibiting any school from using State Aid or other appropriations for private lessons. Neither was heard by the Senate Education Committee, nor were the other five education bills I filed that year.
I held an interim study in September 2018 featuring teachers and administrators from school districts statewide to share their concerns. Public school superintendents and teachers complained about Epic recruiting students and taking state funds only to dump them once they received state money.
They reported how the students were behind educationally when they returned to public school classrooms. One of Epic's owners admitted in the study that they'd assigned thousands of laptops to students using state funds yet didn't keep track of the state property. Over 6,000 computers were listed as "unrecoverable" in 2018 and only three were reported as returned. Traditional schools are legally required to track all books, computers and other school property. This is true for all agencies and entities that receive state funding.
The study was eye-opening to many of Epic's questionable dealings, but not to me. I knew what was happening but needed the media and public to hear it for themselves.
Next week, I'll continue my three-part series on my fight for transparency and accountability for public schools.
If you have any questions or I can be of any assistance, please don't hesitate to contact me at [email protected] or call me at (405) 521-5539.