California School Officials Want To Shut Down Oklahoma-Based Virtual School

Dec 12, 2016

Epic Virtual Charter School has been operating in Oklahoma since 2011, and just opened a new location in Orange County, California a few months ago. However, local superintendents in the O.C. area already want Epic shut down.

Officials from the Anaheim Union High School District and Anaheim Elementary School District have filed a lawsuit against the Orange County Board of Education for approving Epic’s charter in November 2015, despite staff recommendations not to. They say the charter was approved illegally and in violation of California’s Charter School Act.

“The county school board failed to exercise its oversight duty when the flawed petition first came before them,” said Mike Matsuda, Superintendent of the Anaheim Union High School District. “Instead, they approved it with conditions that were never met. The OCBE’s actions have left us with no recourse other than to seek this injunction.”

The lawsuit, filed Friday in the Orange County Superior Court, seeks a permanent injunction, preventing EPIC from continuing to operate its virtual school in California, and ordering the Orange County Board of Education to revoke its charter.

The California school opened in September and currently has about 60 students enrolled.

CALIFORNIA’S CONCERNS

California’s Charter School Act requires all charter school applications to be reviewed by the potential governing school board. After staff from the Orange County Department of Education vetted Epic’s application—they recommended the board deny it.

The staff review stated, among other things, that Epic was demonstrably unlikely to successfully implement the program presented in the petition and that their petition did not present a sound educational program.

The review pointed to Epic’s low graduation rates in Oklahoma, and low grades on Oklahoma’s A-F School Report Card as an indication that Epic would not be able to “successfully implement the intended school program.” Epic earned a D+, D+, and a C on the 2015-2016 School Report Card, and had about a 28 percent graduation rate in 2014.

The report said, “this is of concern given that the EPIC One on One Charter School program [in Oklahoma] is the same program being presented to the [Orange County Board of Education]...”

A review conducted by staff at the Anaheim Elementary School District, where Epic originally submitted its charter application, noted that Epic’s petition failed to outline plans for special education services, supports for at-risk students and English Language Learners, and failed to fully identify its financial and operational plans. 

KOSU scoured through Orange County Board of Education meeting transcripts, and found statements from EPIC co-founder, Ben Harris, saying Epic planned to hire specialists for special education and English language learners. However, Epic could not be reached for comment to confirm or deny this.

Another point of concern for members of the Orange County Board of Education was a lack of public support for the school.

California’s Charter School Act requires charter applicants to collect a certain amount of signatures from parents and legal guardians in the area, proving there is local interest for the proposed charter school. Epic petitioners collected 526 signatures to satisfy the requirement, but when OCBE staff reviewers called 109 numbers back to check for validity, only three respondents said they intended to have their children attend EPIC Charter School.

The report states: The majority of the remaining 106 phone calls either stated something to the effect of, “I do not know what you’re talking about,” did not return the phone call, or the phone number listed was disconnected or incorrect. Sample responses from parents included the following comments:

  • “I’ve never heard of EPIC.”
  • “No, but if you ever need someone to sign a petition to help you with your funding just let me know.”
  • “I don’t remember signing any petition.”
  • “I like the school my kids go to, I thought I was just signing a petition saying I am in favor of charter schools.”
  • “No, I don’t know what you’re talking about, I’m in China.”

The report says Epic officials acknowledged that they had hired workers to collect signatures in front of stores or by going door-to-door and that they had trained them on the contents of the petition.

However, the report goes on to state, “Based on the information provided, the petitioner’s process for signature gathering indicates a lack of adherence to the spirit of the charter school petition process and calls into question the veracity of the signatures, a threshold requirement for a charter petition to be submitted.”

Orange County Department of Education staff also expressed concern over Epic’s “learning fund.” Epic gives every family $1,500 in a school-controlled account, which they’re allowed to spend on educational items. Parents must select a particular curriculum for their students, and that cost is deducted from the fund.

Any remaining money can go toward items such as laptop rental or extra-curricular activities. As noted by OCDE staff in recommending the rejection of Epic’s petition, “more affluent students who already own computer equipment and have internet access at home would be able to use the student learning fund for additional learning materials, while less affluent students would have to use the student learning fund to purchase computer equipment and internet access.”

“This inequitable model violates California’s requirement for a system of free schools,” OCDE staff noted.

A HISTORY OF CONTROVERSY

From the start, Epic has been a target for controversy.

In 2010 when co-founders Ben Harris and David Chaney applied for a charter in Oklahoma, virtual charter schools were required to be authorized by a local university. Epic had a contract with the University of Central Oklahoma, but the state Department of Education refused to recognize it because had not been approved by the board of regents that governs UCO.

Epic’s board sued the state Department of Education and won with a ruling that their contract was valid, and they began enrolling students in the 2011-2012 school year.

In 2014, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin requested an investigation in to allegations of fraud at the school. The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation conducted the probe, then turned their findings over to the Attorney General’s office. No charges have been filed, and no information has been released.

More recently, controversy over EPIC’s business practices came to light last month in an audit prepared by the Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team (FCMAT), which provides California school districts with financial and management support.

The FCMAT audit alleges that Sue Roche, the founder of Oxford Preparatory Academy, which has two charter campuses in Orange County, formed an education management company called Edlighten Learning Solutions to launder school funds for personal profit.

The audit lays out substantial financial ties between Edlighten and Ben Harris and David Chaney’s company, EPIC Youth Services. The audit says EPIC Youth Services received $5,000 a month from Edlighten for consulting services. The report contains emails between Roche and Harris, EPIC’s co-founder, in which they discuss moving personnel between Oxford Preparatory and their management companies to skirt legal issues.

The audit suggests that law enforcement officials be notified because “fraud, misappropriation of assets, or other illegal activities may have occurred.”

A MOSTLY POSITIVE REVIEW

Oklahoma’s Office of Educational Quality and Accountability recently conducted an in-depth review of Epic Virtual Charter School and praised the school on many levels. The OEQA looked in to the Management, Personnel and Communications; Instructional Delivery; Business Operations; Facilities Management; and Technology within the school.

The OEQA said Epic administration had effective professional development for its teachers and communicates well with its staff.

The reviewers also gave the school 17 commendations for instructional delivery.

They commended Epic Charter School leadership and faculty for their efforts in developing a system focused on continuous improvement, which has increased student performance results on the ACT over time. The OEQA also praised the school for adding an extra layer to their graduate support management system in an effort to ensure students are on track and on time for graduation.

A lot of parents also stated in the OEQA’s survey that they appreciated the various curricula that were offered to their children. However, some teachers found the large number of curricula to be burdensome.

OEQA Executive Director Dr. Daniel Craig praised EPIC for its full cooperation in the performance review, indicating it had impressive programs, financial efficiency and appeared committed to optimizing student success amid robust growth.

“Our team was impressed with EPIC. In many areas, it is on par or better than the districts we compared it to for the purpose of this report, which is our practice for any performance review,” Dr. Craig said. “As with any review, we provide recommendations for continued improvement but we consider this a positive performance review for EPIC.”