OKLAHOMA CITY — State education advocates suspect Oklahoma’s largest school district can continue teaching children through the end of the academic year — even if state leaders ultimately decide to terminate their contract.
Phasing out Epic Charter Schools’ operations would avoid displacing more than 60,000 students and around 2,000 educators in the middle of the school year and pandemic, advocates said.
“If I had a crystal ball, I wouldn’t guess that Epic would be shut down immediately,” said Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association. “I just think that our board members will act in the best interest of students, and an immediate shutdown of a school with 60,000 alleged students would not be a good practice.”
Concerns, though, are mounting. Questions remain about what will happen to tens of thousands of children who currently attend the virtual charter school after its statewide oversight board said it plans to consider ending its contract with Community Strategies Inc., which operates Epic One-on-One.
Epic can’t operate in most Oklahoma counties without the charter contract.
The Statewide Virtual Charter School Board’s decision follows the state auditor and inspector’s audit of Epic Charter Schools. Part one of a two-part investigation alleged lax oversight, fiscal mismanagement and state law violations. A hearing on the matter will occur no sooner than Jan. 11, and the board is then expected to vote on the contract.
While Epic has denied wrongdoing, the state Board of Education is demanding the school pay back $11.2 million.
But despite the alleged administrative bungling, a growing number of Oklahoma parents are enrolling their children in the Epic.
Epic officials report enrollment has grown over a decade from 1,700 students to nearly 61,000. The school reportedly also employs around 2,000 educators.
In a statement, Bart Banfield, Epic superintendent, said there is no danger of their current school year being impacted because of the timeline of due process. In addition, any action by the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board does not affect the school's operations in Oklahoma and Tulsa counties, he said.
The virtual board authorizes Epic One-on-One in 75 counties, while Rose State College sponsors Epic Blended learning in Tulsa and Oklahoma counties.
"Now that this matter moves from the political arena to the legal arena, we are confident the law and facts are on our side, and we will prevail," Banfield said. "The state auditor flat out has gotten it wrong in many areas and omitted key information from the audit that proves that. We embrace due process and are confident that Epic will be operating in all 77 counties for many years to come."
He said the school's 2,100 employees and more than 60,000 students are counting on them to make their case in the proper legal channels and work with all agencies involved.
“I wish there had been more conversations from the virtual board and others that we’re not planning to impact students in an immediate manner,” said Shawn Hime, executive director of the state School Boards Association.
He hopes the virtual board will hold conversations about potential timelines and impacts for students and families moving forward.
“My first understanding of the situation is even if they terminate the charter, there would be no change for students and teachers until after the current school year,” he said. “I don’t think anyone wants to disrupt the learning of students and the work of teachers in the middle of a school year.”
Officials with the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board did not return a message left Wednesday seeking comment on next steps and how any potential contract cancellation would work.
A spokeswoman for the state Department of Education said students could enroll in multiple statewide virtual charter school options. They could also choose to attend their local district or transfer, she said.
Hime said nearly all traditional schools now offer online learning with the same platforms and vendors used by Epic. Other statewide charter schools use them as well.
If the statewide virtual board decides to cancel the contract next summer, virtual students can find blended options in traditional districts where they could attend class remotely but participate in sports and extracurricular activities, he said.
“Hopefully, there will be a smooth transition for any students that change home schools,” he said. “I truly believe moving forward that most of those students and children that chose a virtual program other than their home district will move back for some sort of blended approach in the future.”
Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.