Continued success in recruiting new students netted Epic Charter Schools an additional $43.7 million in annual midyear adjustments just made by the Oklahoma State Department of Education.

And because Oklahoma has more than 6,500 new students on the public school rolls and many more children attending private schools on state-funded scholarships, the rate of state aid that all public schools receive had to be reduced by $11.21 per pupil for the remainder of the fiscal year.

“We like schools to have the (per pupil) factor go up at midyear, rather than go down, and that’s by design,” said Carolyn Thompson, chief of government affairs and deputy chief of staff at the state Department of Education.

“We have more students and more students with greater needs; the greatest of those are special education students. You have the same pot of money, and you’re distributing it across more students,” Thompson said.

In making midyear adjustments, state education officials distributed the final 1.53% of state aid, or $36.2 million, among all of the state’s public schools.

The Tulsa, Oklahoma City, Putnam City, Union and Western Heights districts are the biggest losers at midyear for Fiscal Year 2020, each losing between $1.1 million and $4 million.

Midyear adjustments are based on a variety of factors, including schools’ increases or decreases in enrollment during the first nine weeks of the school year and changes in local tax revenues.

That means some districts see their funding docked when all of those factors are considered.

Tulsa Public Schools and Oklahoma City Public Schools lost the most state aid — $3.96 million and $3.83 million, respectively — since initial allocations of state aid were released to public schools in August.

Coming in third and fourth are Putnam City and Union, which lost $1.5 million and $1.1 million, respectively.

Twelve charter schools, including four of Oklahoma’s statewide virtual schools, are among the top 20 in gaining state aid for the fiscal year ending June 30. The only traditional schools in the northeast corner of the state to make the top 20 are Tahlequah and the Hilldale district in Muskogee County.

Epic Charter Schools operates the largest statewide virtual charter school, which it calls Epic One-on-One, and four “blended learning” centers in Tulsa, Oklahoma City and Midwest City. Its overall enrollment is up to a record 28,070 as of the official state count on Oct. 1.

Epic’s advertising and marketing efforts to children, parents and potential new hires have persisted amid the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation’s ongoing probe into allegations of embezzlement, obtaining money by false pretenses, racketeering and forgery at the school system.

By comparison, its students numbered 21,305 at the same time last year and had grown to about 24,000 by the end of the 2018-2019 academic year.

Accordingly, that school system’s total state aid was adjusted up to $112.9 million at this same midyear juncture last year, and it was just adjusted to $156.7 million.

Shelly Hickman, assistant superintendent of communications at Epic, said the midyear adjustment is necessary for the state to catch up to growing charter schools’ enrollment numbers because those schools do not receive funding for additional new students during the first semester of the school year.

Thompson said leaders at the state education agency would like to see legislative action taken in the upcoming session to correct common misconceptions about the state aid funding process, which was set in statute long before the existence of virtual charter schools.

“Obviously we are growing in the number of nontraditional school districts. The statewide virtual charter schools are underfunded from the beginning (of the year), and that has created some frustration for (traditional) districts,” said Thompson.

“Legislatively, I think we would support a change in how the funding for the statewide virtuals works. To be frank, we think they ought to be funded like everybody else. That would make the midyear work the way it used to.”

Private school scholarships up

A significant portion of the state funding set aside for midyear adjustments wasn’t even distributed to public schools. Because of a higher-than-expected increase in applications for private school scholarships, state education officials said they had to hold back $900,000 to cover the costs for the current academic year.

The state of Oklahoma funds private school scholarships through the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship Program, which was named for the daughter of former Gov. Brad Henry.

Previously, participation was limited to students with disabilities, but Thompson explained that the Legislature recently expanded it to any child in state custody, regardless of whether the child has a disability.

The additional $900,000 brings the anticipated annual cost of the program up to $8.4 million for 2019-20. As a comparison, its annual budget five years ago, for the 2015-16 academic year, was $3.5 million.

“I think we are really seeing the full weight of additional students being able to take advantage of that program,” Thompson said.

Participation in the Lindsey Nicole Henry program by students and private schools has grown substantially year after year.

Epic Charter Schools: A Tulsa World investigation

Andrea Eger

918-581-8470

andrea.eger

@tulsaworld.com

Twitter: @AndreaEger

Staff Writer

Andrea is a projects reporter, examining key education topics and other local issues. Since joining the Tulsa World in 1999, she has been a three-time winner of Oklahoma’s top award for investigative reporting by an individual. Phone: 918-581-8470

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