Legislators file bills curtailing virtual charter school practices

Epic Charter School advocates gathered at the State Capitol for an educational day on March 11, 2019. (Whitney Bryen / Oklahoma Watch)

State lawmakers are looking to rein in virtual charter schools.

A number of bills proposed for the 2020 legislative session, which begins Feb. 3, would limit the flexibility or funding for virtual charter schools in the state. Several proposals seem to target Epic Charter Schools, the state’s largest virtual school, which has drawn scrutiny for its spending and enrollment practices and is under investigation for alleged fraud. Epic has denied wrongdoing.

Thursday was the deadline to introduce legislation.

House Bill 3065, by Rep. Lundy Kiger, R-Poteau, would limit funding per virtual charter student to $3,500 “from all public and private sources.” Currently, virtual schools receive the same weighted amount per student as traditional schools, but because they do not receive local revenue, nearly all of it comes from the state.

House Bill 3066, also by Kiger, a former educator, would prohibit charter schools, including virtual charters, from using any state funding to purchase advertising. It also would prohibit virtual school students from receiving compensation or financial incentives for recruiting other students. Epic spent more than $2 million on television and newspaper advertisements last year; the school also rewards students for referrals through its “student learning fund,” an allocation of credit than can be used on technology, curriculum and extra-curricular activities. Epic is the only school with such a fund.

Similarly, Senate Bill 1153 by Ron Sharp, R-Shawnee, a former teacher, would prohibit all public schools from spending state funding on marketing or advertising except under certain circumstances, such as for employment opportunities or school bond elections.

House Bill 3492, by Rep. Chris Sneed, R-Muskogee, would prohibit any public school, including charter and virtual schools, from using state funds on private extracurricular activities for students, including gymnastics, music lessons and athletic performance lessons. It would also prohibit virtual charter schools from giving bonuses to teachers or other school staff for recruiting teachers or students from another school.

Senate Bill 1097, by J.J. Dossett, D-Sperry, would require students seeking a full-time virtual education to enroll in a program through their local school district, if offered and if “equal in scope and content” to a statewide virtual charter school. Virtual charter school students enrolled by 2022-23 would be exempt.

Senate Bill 1100 by Sharp would add responsibilities to the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board, the state agency tasked with sponsoring all statewide virtual schools. The proposal would require the board to complete an annual review of each school’s state aid allocations and student count, in compliance with the terms of their contract and attendance policy, student performance and other items.

Senate Bill 1541, by Sen. Gary Stanislawski, R-Tulsa, would rename the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board and increase the number of voting members from five to nine. The proposed name is the Oklahoma Commission for Digital Learning.

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