The Oklahoma House voted 81-17 on Monday on new safeguards and greater transparency requirements for charter schools managed by outside vendors.
The fate of last-minute legislation House Bill 2966 now rests in the hands of the Oklahoma Senate, and it is unclear whether the bill will be heard in that chamber before the Legislature adjourns later this week.
The legislation, carried by Rep. Sheila Dills, R-Tulsa, is based on an extraordinary and urgent call to action recently issued by the multicounty grand jury probing the Epic Charter Schools saga.
“This measure protects taxpayers and addresses many of the issues raised in these recent reports,” Dills said in a written press statement after Monday’s House floor vote. “Due to high-profile investigations, charter schools in Oklahoma have been covered by a cloud of skepticism. These public schools and the parents that choose this option for their children are ready for there to be clarity in our laws, for there to be an end to investigations and for positive changes to occur.”
Oklahoma’s multicounty grand jury became involved in October in investigating Epic Charter Schools after the state auditor and inspector issued a scathing report about the accounting practices of the operators of the state’s largest school system and lack of oversight by their hand-picked governing board members.
In a rare move, the grand jury issued an interim report stating that while its criminal inquiry is still ongoing, it has already seen evidence that new safeguards and greater transparency requirements should be instituted by the Legislature before even more taxpayer dollars are allocated to Epic beginning with the new fiscal year on July 1.
On the House floor on Monday, Rep. Chris Kannady, R-Oklahoma City, questioned the legality of the grand jury’s report and Rep. Mark Lepak, R-Claremore, wanted to know why the grand jury’s recommendations were being expedited.
“Under Title 22 of our statutes, which deals with criminal procedure, Section 355, it says any attorney, grand juror, or anybody else involved — it lists stenographers, interpreters, etc. — may discuss matters before the multi-county grand jury only when so directed by the court. My question to you is, are you aware of any court order that allowed these matters to be released by the multi-county grand jury?” Kannady said. “The statute says specifically that all such persons shall be sworn to secrecy and shall be in contempt of court criminally if they reveal any other information which they are sworn to keep secret. I see that as a red flag and was curious whether you had similar concerns with this grand jury report in relation to this bill, since you mentioned it?”
Dills responded that she had not spoken to anyone with the grand jury.
“I simply read the report and I think it was interesting that it aligned with the state auditor’s report.”
Lepak said his concerns were similar to those raised by Kannady.
“This report was based on testimony — secret testimony — behind closed doors, and was only made public through this particular report. Is the information that’s in that report any that’s been run through any of our education committees or interim studies? I know we had an auditor’s report recently. I’m concerned that we’re looking at language for the first time based on something that occurred behind closed doors.”
Officially titled the Oklahoma Education Services Policy Act of 2021, HB 2966 was filed as a shell bill by House Speaker Charles McCall. Shell bills provide a vehicle for expediting legislation.
Dills has been the architect of two previously enacted pieces of legislation to try to crack down on the financial practices of charter schools.
A bill she introduced to ensure full spending transparency for schools that contract with outside educational management organizations, such as Epic, hadn’t received a hearing on the education appropriations subcommittee earlier this session.
But after the grand jury issued recommendations for legislative action, some components of that dormant bill, House Bill 1735, were revived and some of the grand jury’s recommendations were used to quickly form HB 2966.
Dills also noted Monday that many charter schools and related organizations were involved in conversations prior to the drafting of the language of the bill.
According to Dills, those conversations included three other statewide virtual charter schools, as well as Oklahoma Public School Resource Center, Oklahoma Public Charter School Association, National Charter School Association, National Association for Charter School Authorizers, Oklahoma State Department of Education and Statewide Virtual Charter School Board.
Dills has said HB 2966 is a good next step, but additional legislative action would still be necessary. She is planning an interim study ahead of future legislation to that end.