Officials at Tulsa Public Schools decried the loss of nearly 500 students to the state’s largest virtual charter school just since school began in August at a Thursday morning meeting with area lawmakers.
Superintendent Deborah Gist and School Board President Suzanne Schreiber told the 15 or so legislators present that they are strong proponents of school choice, but they think new regulation is needed to reduce the constant churn of students coming and going from EPIC Charter Schools.
In total, 496 students left TPS for EPIC and 169 returned from EPIC between the first day of school and the end of last week.
Gist described the midyear loss of those nearly 500 students as akin to the loss of an entire, large elementary school population. And she said the revolving door to and from EPIC is increasingly disruptive to the Tulsa district’s planning and budgeting processes.
Skyrocketing growth in student enrollment at EPIC just netted the operator of the state’s biggest virtual or online charter school, as well as “blended learning centers” in Tulsa and Oklahoma City an additional $38.7 million in annual, midyear adjustments made by the Oklahoma State Department of Education.
Conversely, TPS tied with Oklahoma City Public Schools for the greatest loss of state aid dollars at midyear — $2.1 million each — since initial allocations of were released to public schools in August.
Schreiber said the EPIC charter school system “is not very transparent. We don’t know a lot about what happens when children are there.”
She offered the example of six students who had left for EPIC who recently returned to Tulsa’s Hale High School after a long absence.
“What happened when they were there? Nothing,” Schreiber said. “Waste and effectiveness is really something that needs to be looked at.”
State Sen. Gary Stanislawski, R-Tulsa, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, told TPS officials he is sponsoring four new pieces of legislation that, if adopted, could address their concerns.
One would make virtual schools subject to the same student transfer rules that apply to traditional public schools. Specifically, he said, students wanting to leave midyear would have to obtain the permission of the superintendents of their current and desired school districts.
Next, he said he thinks the current way state aid is budgeted for virtual school students needs to be adjusted. And a third piece of legislation would require greater transparency for virtual charter school finances.
“A big block of (public) money is going to a management company,” Stanislawski said. “We’re going to pull the curtain back on the management company.”
Lastly, Stanislawski said he wants to address one of the chief complaints he has been hearing from superintendents — that students who transfer back from virtual charter schools are “credit deficient.”
He said his bill would require the sending school to report “how credit deficient a kid is” to the Oklahoma State Department of Education “so you’re not held accountable for someone else’s deficiencies,” adding, “I’ve heard it from too many districts over the last several years.”
Schreiber applauded the ideas, saying, “Transparency measures are super important ... Parents need to know (if they leave), they’re not getting out of it, and number two, you know what you’re getting when you go there.”
Gist said sharp declines in student enrollment at TPS is chief on her mind at this time. She said she thinks the district needs to do a better job of correcting public perception about its schools and students.
And she told lawmakers it is critical for them to understand the district’s best efforts to innovate and improve the education of students and the workplace environment for teachers would be impossible if they were limited to current levels of public funding.
“We’re paying for that with private dollars — we don’t have the funds in the state of Oklahoma,” Gist said.
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