In late April, Norman High School teacher Jeremy Davis received a recruitment email from Epic Charter Schools, an online Oklahoma charter school that has earned praise, criticism and scrutiny in recent years during a period of rapid growth.
The email, titled “Epic is hiring faculty in your area of Oklahoma,” boasted of the charter school’s high teacher pay, figures that far outstrip what teachers in traditional public schools earn. The email stated the average first-year Epic teacher made nearly $60,000 in 2018, and that the highest-paid first-year teacher made almost $90,000.the average first year public school teacher in Oklahoma made only $36,601, the email stated.
To keep up with the demand for more teachers, Epic needed to add hundreds of faculty members to its ranks.
“Epic’s highest paid teacher earned over $133,000 last year including benefits,” the email read. “Imagine getting paid what you deserve.”
A few weeks later, Davis got another email from Epic, about Bart Banfield, the charter school’s new superintendent. Then last month, Davis got a physical recruitment letter in the mail from Epic.
Davis never signed up with Epic for any emails, and he had never given them his home address. Turns out, Epic had acquired his contact information, and that of thousands of other certified public school teachers across the state, through different means.
On April 5, Epic spokeswoman Shelly Hickman sent an open records request to the Oklahoma State Department of Education asking for physical addresses of every person certified to teach in the state of Oklahoma.
While state law prohibits state agencies from releasing the home address of their employees through a records request, the Oklahoma Open Records Act requires agencies to release information provided by “an individual/non-employee.”
Because certified teachers had given this information to the state education department it was now considered an open record, OSDE general counsel Brad Clark said in the email chain with Hickman.
Steffie Corcoran, a spokeswoman for the OSDE, said the department turned over a spreadsheet with the personal information of thousands of actively certified teachers across the state to Epic.
Epic refers to itself as a public school, and brings in tens of millions of dollars each year in state funding. Yet as a virtual charter school, it has never been held to the same transparency requirements as traditional brick-and-mortar school systems. The attempt to siphon away public school teachers would seem to deepen this divide between Epic and traditional schools.
For Davis, a union member who proudly marched during last year’s teacher walkout at the state Capitol, the email came as a slap in the face.
“You’re putting in all this effort to be a part of education and to have a say in fixing things and then you have this entity come along that plays by completely different rules and try to lure you away,” Davis said. “It’s disheartening … they’re pulling teachers we desperately need out of physical classrooms. It adds to the strain.”
Epic says it serves “approximately 24,000” students across Oklahoma. In the teacher recruitment email sent in April, the school system said that while it currently employees “700 faculty,” it was set to hire more than 600 new teachers for the upcoming school year.
Hickman and Epic Charter Schools administrators were unavailable for comment. Emails to Hickman were met with automated replies stating the school was closed this week and responses to media questions would not available until July 8.
Last week Oklahoma Watch published a story in which “at least seven former teachers” claimed Epic administrators had been “allowing, encouraging or pressuring” teachers to withdraw poor-performing students in order to boost employee bonus pay. The school, in a response written by two former journalists who’ve been hired by Epic to teach journalism, denied the allegations. Oklahoma Watch executive editor David Fritze published a note on Monday saying the organization stands by its reporting.
Scrutiny and controversy are nothing new to Epic, however. The school, founded by Ben Harris and David Chaney, both of Oklahoma City, was investigated years ago by the Oklahoma Bureau of Investigation after fraud allegations were made, but no charges were ever filed. The OSBI opened up a new investigation into the school earlier this year, which the Tulsa World reported was potentially due to alleged “dual enrollment” of students.
Some students were allegedly enrolled at Epic and various private schools simultaneously, something that could violate the law as public funds cannot be used to aid private schools. Epic receives tens of millions of dollars each year in state funds. It is operated by Epic Youth Services, a for-profit that collects a 10 percent cut of the school’s revenues each year.
Chaney, co-owner of Epic Youth Services LLC, resigned as superintendent of Epic Schools earlier this year after legislation was passed restricting the ability to serve as superintendent and own the company that operates the school. Chaney praised HB 1395, authored by Tulsa Republican Sheila Dills, which also added several reporting and transparency requirements on charter schools in Oklahoma.
Another bill, filed by Bartlesville Republican Derrel Fincher, would have theoretically ended Epic’s ability to enroll students year-round, instead creating two annual enrollment periods for virtual schools. The bill was laid over but Oklahoma Watch reported last month that Fincher plans to “revive it in 2020.”
Epic’s growth has come as the school has spent thousands of dollars on Facebook and television advertisements, as well as sponsored articles dressed up to look like news stories that have appeared online in both The Oklahoman and Tulsa World.