Monday, November 30, 2020

Support for Oklahoma ed reform hits new high

"While 2020 has ushered in many changes," writes pollster Pat McFerron, "one constant is that voters in Oklahoma continue to support school choice, including allowing parents to use tax dollars to send their children to private schools."

In a survey of 500 registered Oklahoma voters conducted Sept. 20-24, 2020 (margin of error: plus/minus 4.3%), 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 choicewhether it is public, private, online, or charterwhich 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%

"It looks as though the pandemic has strengthened the resolve of Republicans who now support school-choice by better than a three-to-one margin [72% to 23%]," McFerron writes, "while the issue divides Democrats more than we have ever seen [44% favor, 47% oppose]."

In sum, McFerron writes, "one thing is clear: Voters are now focused on reforming public education. They embrace fundamental reforms more now than at any time we have been pollingsomething that now dates back more than 30 years."


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.