Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Reason to question state audit of Epic

[Guest post by Jonathan Small]

I’m a CPA with many years’ experience in government finances and I have had the opportunity to review the recent state audit of Epic Charter Schools as well as separate responses from Epic. An objective review reveals the performance of the audit has glaring flaws.

According to state law, the office of the State Auditor and Inspector (SAI) is required to review all audits of public schools. When deficiencies are found by the SAI, the office is required to notify the school board of statements of deficiencies. There’s no indication that the SAI’s previous reviews ever found any deficiencies at Epic, so the SAI’s new claims of improper financial accounting at Epic are tantamount to an admission of neglect or incompetence by SAI—if those claims are true. But it appears many claims of financial abuse are unfounded.

The audit’s problems include a de facto recommendation that Epic violate state regulations on calculation of retirement contributions of teachers, even though Epic has provided documents from the Oklahoma Teachers Retirement System that showed the school made the calculations correctly.

The audit went way beyond its scope to call for a ban on for-profit operation of charter schools, echoing the platforms of socialist U.S. Bernie Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden, and the Democratic Party platform.

One SAI staffer significantly involved in the audit has previously admitted to lacking basic accounting knowledge, such as understanding the principle of “assets = liabilities plus equity.”

When Epic expanded its model into California, that state’s regulators asked for documentation that demonstrated Epic’s financial soundness. That documentation included a bank statement showing millions of dollars of cash on hand. SAI declared that providing such information was the equivalent of using state funds as collateral—yet Epic entered into no such agreements. The funds shown on that bank statement never secured any loan whatsoever. They only provided financial documentation at the request of California officials.

Neglecting best practices, the SAI didn’t include Epic’s full responses to the allegations in its report, nor thoroughly review calculations with Epic before releasing the allegations. The failure to abide by such standard auditing procedures is another red flag.

The SAI has since taken more than seven weeks to produce workpapers from the “special audit” and provide full support for some of the audit’s most salacious claims, including that Epic and the State Department of Education misclassified millions in administrative salaries.

Put simply, the audit omits much relevant information and ignores documents that undermine its most headline-grabbing claims, and SAI officials appear to be dragging their feet in facilitating a thorough review of their work product.

That pattern of behavior gives Oklahomans reasons to doubt the audit’s veracity.

An honest review of the state audit of Epic Charter Schools raises many questions. But those questions are centered around the validity and seriousness of the audit process, not on Epic.

Monday, November 23, 2020

Parent group launches, seeks accountability from schools

"Gathered at the Oklahoma Capitol on a brisk Monday," Ray Carter reports, "parents announced the formation of a group that will seek to empower families to have greater control in their children’s education—including the ability to hold recall elections for school board members that ignore parents’ wishes."

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Nearly one in five Oklahoma high-schoolers bullied on school property last year

"The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has released the 2019 results of their biennial Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS), and the responses show public schools in the Sooner State are having a tough time keeping children safe," Tim Benson writes. "The latest data from YRBSS shows almost one in five Oklahoma high school students, 19.4 percent, were bullied on school property in 2019, while another 14.5 percent of state high school students reported being cyberbullied."

Friday, November 13, 2020

Anti-Christian discrimination reaches Oklahoma

Credit: The Weekly Standard

[Guest post by Jonathan Small]

It’s no secret government officials often target traditional Christians for harassment, but Oklahomans often view that as a problem that happens in other states, not here. Sadly, that’s not true.

In 2010, lawmakers passed and the governor signed into law the Lindsey Nicole Henry (LNH) Scholarships for Students with Disabilities program. It provides state scholarships for certain students—those with special needs like autism, or foster children—to attend private schools.

A few things are required for schools to participate. The LNH law requires that participating private schools comply with the antidiscrimination provisions of a section of federal law that bars discrimination “on the ground of race, color, or national origin.”

Those are the only three categories listed. Yet, under the leadership of State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister, the OSDE drafted new regulations that added “religion” and “sexual orientation” to that list.

As a result, private Christian schools are now being blackballed from serving LNH students.

When Altus Christian Academy and Christian Heritage Academy applied to serve LNH students, they were denied approval by the State Board of Education at the group’s October meeting.

Oklahoma State Board of Education member Kurt Bollenbach complained one of the schools required staff to be “mature Christian teachers,” which he declared was “discriminating against other religions or nonreligions.”

Bollenbach and Brad Clark, who serves as Hofmeister’s top attorney, also stressed the two schools' policies on sexual orientation.

Put another way, if they want to serve LNH students, Christian schools must be prepared to hire strident atheists and embrace all aspects of the LGBT agenda.

Bollenbach even declared Christian schools have the right to set hiring policies only “until they ask for state dollars.” But that is not true, because the LNH program does not force parents to attend any specific private schools. Instead, students attend by choice.

That’s one reason the Oklahoma Supreme Court upheld the law in 2016, saying, “When the parents and not the government are the ones determining which private school offers the best learning environment for their child, the circuit between government and religion is broken.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has also upheld school-choice programs that allow students to attend private religious schools.

It’s notable that the LNH program operated for nine years without any problem before the OSDE concocted these new restrictions on schools’ policies regarding religion and sexual orientation.

The OSDE regulations are, in effect, a unilateral rewriting of Oklahoma law done outside the legislative process. Fortunately, the illegality of that action is apparent to all, and the agency will likely face lawsuits if it does not reverse course.

Even so, this incident highlights a sad fact: Citizens in conservative Oklahoma must be just as vigilant in monitoring their government’s actions as their blue-state counterparts.

Saturday, November 7, 2020

Fund parental choice for all who want it

[Guest post by Jonathan Small]

Hope is among life’s most precious commodities. Oklahoma lawmakers can increase the stock of that commodity and provide it to Oklahoma’s most vulnerable citizens by fully funding parental school choice for all who want it.

This year’s pandemic-created challenges have been felt by all, but not shared equally, including in education.

The closure of physical sites for in-person instruction has created hardship for families at all income levels, but the burden is greatest for those of limited means who must forgo work opportunities to watch children during the day. And the virtual learning options provided in lieu of classroom instruction have often been subpar at best.

Even parents who do not face such harsh choices want to make sure they do not endure this limited menu of education options for any reason in the future.

That’s why lawmakers should provide fully funded parental school choice options for all who want them. It’s time we gave parents greater control over their children’s education.

There are several ways to achieve that goal. The first is to expand the “digital wallet” program Gov. Kevin Stitt launched this year. That program, currently funded with federal COVID-relief funds, provides $1,500 to low-income families to spend on educational supplies.

Lawmakers can expand equality of opportunity and make the program available to all Oklahomans, putting at least $5,000 in state funds in each account and allowing families to use the money for services, including private-school tuition. That alone would open the door of educational opportunity for families across the state.

Lawmakers should also provide a significant refundable tax credit for families to offset education expenses. That would be comparable to the Earned Income Tax Credit that provides cash payments to low-income Oklahomans, and it would allow more parents to cover the costs of better schools for a child.

Best of all, that would effectively increase overall education funding in Oklahoma.

Legislators should also raise the cap on Oklahoma’s scholarship tax-credit program, which has benefited thousands of low-income children. Tax-credit scholarships have helped numerous children escape from failing schools and enter private schools that provide better academics, personal safety, and (often) moral grounding.

For far too long, private schools have been mostly restricted to children in families with higher income, yet that doesn’t have to be the case. Private schools across Oklahoma are ready and eager to accept children from a wider range of socio-economic backgrounds. Some schools are already leading the way, such as Crossover Preparatory Academy in Tulsa, Little Light Christian School, Mission Academy, and Positive Tomorrows in Oklahoma City, which serve low-income, children of the incarcerated, those recovering from addiction, and homeless children.

For parents worried about their children’s future, Oklahoma lawmakers can offer the antidote of hope, optimism, and justified belief in a better future—if they are ready to lead on parental school choice for all who want it.

Saturday, October 31, 2020

Party of slavery opposes educational freedom

President Donald Trump is pictured here with rapper Dwayne Michael Carter, Jr., better known by his stage name Lil Wayne, on October 29, 2020.

[Guest post by Jonathan Small]

This year’s presidential campaigns are causing many people to have “aha” moments that defy partisan stereotypes.

Democratic candidate Joe Biden says he will repeal the tax cuts enacted under President Trump and add many new taxes. When analysts reviewed the combined state-federal tax rates that would result under Biden’s proposals, they found top rates would surge to 62 percent in New York, for example. That prompted Rapper 50 Cent to declare, “I don’t want to be 20 Cent.”

Rapper Lil Wayne in a recent tweet praised Trump for his work on criminal justice reform and inclusion of Wayne’s proposals that empower ownership in black communities.

Rapper Ice Cube reached out to both political parties to discuss his proposals to help black Americans. The Trump administration included some of Ice Cube’s ideas in the campaign’s agenda. Ice Cube lamented that all Democrats did was pay lip service with constant references to “minorities” and "people of color."

In Ice Cube’s video discussing the two parties’ response, he looked somber. That’s a common reaction for those confronted with reality. Nationwide, there’s often a glaring gap between what people have been told about the two political parties and reality.

Here are a few examples.

The Democratic Party was the party of slavery.

Several American Indian tribes took thousands of black slaves with them to their reservations in Oklahoma and then fought for the Confederacy to preserve slavery.

Democrats insist all Americans should have to give tax dollars to groups like Planned Parenthood, an organization whose founder specifically targeted black babies and whose mission today still places disproportionate attention on increasing abortions in minority communities.

“Progressives” decry the Electoral College, yet without the Electoral College, our nation would not have had Abraham Lincoln as president or the subsequent Emancipation Proclamation.

President Trump champions expanding parental school choice, while Joe Biden—who once said he didn’t want Delaware children forced into a “racial jungle”—wants to limit charter schools and opposes scholarship programs that help children attend private schools. Many families who benefit from those policies—including many minority households—are starting to notice.

Biden has also said, “Well I tell you what, if you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black.” And Biden noted, “…unlike the African American community, with notable exceptions, the Latino community is an incredibly diverse community…”

The Trump administration has protected individuals and organizations from being required to facilitate practices they believe violate their faith. Biden’s team has declared they will force individuals and organizations to violate their faith, and the national Democratic Party platform even characterizes abiding by Biblical principles as attempts to “discriminate”.

Aha moments are mounting. We shall see what it means when the votes are finally cast.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

ESA in 2021? State lawmakers could make it happen

"Oklahoma could have an ESA overnight," Greg Forster writes, "by expanding its Digital Wallet program. Simply increase the funding level to $5,000 per student, make eligibility universal, and include services as well as products."

Oklahoma coach charged with soliciting sex with a minor

"A Latta elementary PE and assistant high school baseball/basketball coach has been charged with soliciting sexual conduct or communication with a minor by use of technology," KFOR reports.

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Oklahoma voters favor parental choice in education

Yet another survey of Oklahoma voters shows strong support for parental choice in education. This survey of 500 registered Oklahoma voters (margin of error: +/- 4.3%) was conducted September 2024, 2020, by CHS & Associates. Respondents were asked:
  • “School choice gives parents the right to use tax dollars raised for their child’s education to send their child to the school of their choice whether it is public, private, online, or charter which best serves their needs. Generally speaking, do you favor or oppose the concept of school choice for Oklahoma?”
    • Strongly Favor ………. 40%
    • Somewhat Favor ………. 21% 
    • Somewhat Oppose ………. 9% 
    • Strongly Oppose ………. 24% 
    • Undecided ………. 6%
As you can see below, support was even stronger among voters with children in the home (65% favor, 30% oppose) and among Republicans (72% favor, 23% oppose).

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Tishomingo teacher busted for meth

"A Tishomingo Middle School coach was arrested on Thursday after a sheriff’s deputy found meth in his car," KXII reports.

It is just the latest black eye for Tishomingo schools: two basketball coaches were fired three years ago for using a school bus to make a beer run on a road trip, two years ago a former superintendent was audited by OSBI for misusing school funds, and his wife -- formerly a teacher and cheer coach -- is currently serving time for having sex with a student.

Monday, October 26, 2020

Oklahoma teacher: 'Everything my kids are doing at home is a cheatable assignment'

"Schools’ large-scale shift to virtual education amid COVID-19 is challenging the system of determining what students actually know and limiting educators’ ability to ensure academic integrity," Oklahoma Watch reports ("Cheat Codes: Students Search For Shortcuts as Virtual Schooling Expands").
Cheating has always been an issue in schools, but there is little getting in the way for students today. Shared answers have become even more accessible as districts have adopted or expanded their use of popular online learning programs like Edgenuity, which delivers the same content to students across the country.

Many schools adopted such virtual programs in a matter of months to adapt to the ongoing public health crisis. Seventy percent of Oklahoma districts had a virtual option at the start of this school year, and 7.5% were exclusively online, according to a state Department of Education survey.

But when students are not inside classrooms, it becomes more difficult to ensure they are actually learning, teachers say.

“Everything my kids are doing at home is a cheatable assignment, which makes that in-class time so incredibly valuable,” said Elanna Dobbs, who teaches English at Edmond Memorial High School.

Friday, October 16, 2020

Why is Epic popular?

[Guest post by Jonathan Small]

Ask the average citizen what they know about Epic Charter Schools, an online public K-12 school, and you’ll typically hear two responses. First, the school’s critics are vocal, fierce, and determined to shut down Epic, and second, the school is increasingly popular among parents.

Some will consider those two facts incompatible. Why would parents flock to a school that is constantly under fire from bureaucrats and teacher unions who regularly remind us they know better than the rest of us? The answer is simple. Because parents believe that Epic provides a better educational product than many local brick-and-mortar schools, particularly in the state’s urban centers. If Epic’s back-end business functions have been questioned by a flawed state audit that encouraged Epic to make inaccurate calculations, that’s of little concern to parents focused on the welfare of their child.

One parent of an Epic student, addressing members of the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board, put it bluntly: “A lot of the parents that are inside Epic think that brick-and-mortar schools are mad because they’ve had too many kids pulled from them and they’re losing too much money and they’re trying to get Epic shut down.”

Due in part to COVID-19 and the continued closure of many physical school sites, along with the bad-to-terrible online alternatives provided by local districts, families have flocked to Epic this year. The district now serves more than 61,000 students—all of whom proactively chose the school—making Epic Oklahoma’s largest school by enrollment.

The demand for Epic’s services shows parents desire parental school choice. Those who feel Epic has gained an outsized role are often people who oppose parental school choice. But if we truly care about parents and families having access to the school they believe best meets their student’s needs, we need to increase the length of the school-choice menu.

Lawmakers should provide families the ability to use their tax funding at any school of their choice. If a local district won’t provide in-person instruction, allow families to transfer to other districts or private schools without restriction or penalty. When a local district is failing to educate children, let families use tax dollars for private-school enrollment. When a district refuses to stop bullying, let a child choose from a wide range of online, charter, public, and private school options.

Consumer choice and competition generate improvement in all other fields. They can do the same thing in education. But right now many families have only two choices: the local traditional school or a statewide online charter school.

The great challenge in education today is not whether Epic used the proper accounting codes for administrative expenses (the main allegation contained in the flawed state audit), but the fact that tens of thousands of families have demonstrated a strong desire for a greater array of parental school choice options for their children.