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An Open Letter from the Jealous Cabal

April 11, 2021 Comments off

In case you haven’t heard yet, the State Board of Education (SBE) approved a settlement with the Oklahoma Public Charter School Association during their March 25 Board meeting. Against the advice of their in-house counsel, the SBE voted 4-3 essentially to allow charter schools to have access to local revenue, in addition to the state revenue they already receive.

I’m not going to rehash that decision, which for the record, I find problematic. Instead, I’d like to address the multi-faceted defense of that decision that seems to rest on the shoulders of the newest member of the SBE, Trent Smith.

Smith made the motion to approve the resolution settling the lawsuit and has been its most vocal proponent. This weekend alone, he appeared on News 9’s The Hot Seat with Scott Mitchell and penned a letter to the editor that appeared in the Tulsa World

The letter in the World was pretty straightforward. He simply stated that the resolution rights a mis-application of state law. Those of us opposed to the settlement disagree and point to the original intent of the charter school movement, which leaned on public-private partnerships for the funding of charter schools. 

Smith’s interview with Mitchell, however, was quite a journey. I watched it a few times, took some notes, and have comments. Let me unpack a few direct quotes from the five-minute segment.

“Not only was [the settlement] not a mistake; it was to a large degree, premeditated.” – (0:40)

What exactly does Smith mean by premeditated? That’s usually not a term used by someone defending their actions. We know that the SBE met in an executive session for four hours, discussed a number of items, and then came back with this resolution. He read the motion from his computer screen. Does he mean that the decision to contradict their lawyer’s decision was made prior to the meeting?

“The public education cabal, if you will, that has been in existence for decades and decades and decades, they’re interesting in protecting the status quo.” – (1:40)

No, we’re interested in educating children. 

What really got me going today was the word, cabal. And to be honest, I think it was used intentionally to be provocative. It worked. I’m provoked. My friend, Matt Riggs, superintendent in Macomb, tweeted about it, which is how I became aware of the Mitchell-Smith discussion in the first place.

Merriam-Webster defines cabal as “the contrived schemes of a group of persons secretly united in a plot.” I also vaguely remember an 80’s era video game called Cabal. 

I really don’t know what we’re doing that is in any way a contrived scheme or secretive. Oklahoma education advocacy groups and district leaders have been openly vocal about their thoughts on the SBE settlement. Many districts, including mine, have either approved, or plan to approve, legal action over this decision. We post this to our local board agendas, which aren’t exactly hard to find.

While I agree with Mr. Smith about preferring a legislative solution to a litigated one, that could be many things to different people. And I’m all for those discussions being had in the light of day.

Not in an executive session. And certainly not in a premeditated manner.

“I don’t think it’s any secret, and they don’t like to talk about this, that Oklahoma’s public education system is always near the bottom of the barrel….There’s only 50 states, and we can’t seem to get above 45th, 42nd, 48th.” – (1:50)

At this point, Smith lays down tracks for the rest of his comments. Our schools are bad and need competition

I’ve been a public school educator for 28 years, and I’m the son of a retired teacher. I’ve been hearing that my whole life. I’ve also been hearing my whole life about how poorly funded Oklahoma’s schools are compared with the rest of the country. Yes, our Legislature increased its investment in education in 2018 and 2019. After a decade of – at best – flat funding, we made up some ground that we quickly lost to other states.

Our state has a long history of not supporting public schools. Then our leaders blame the schools for not being in great shape – similar to how we as society tend to blame poor people for not having money.

Ever since HB 1017 passed in 1990, wealthy and well-connected influencers around the state have been trying to demonize public education and the people who work every day to educate our children. But sure, we’re the cabal

“The Academy of Seminole has done a great job graduating a vast majority of their graduating class this year – their first graduating class. The majority of those students will graduate with associate’s degrees.” – (2:25)

That’s fantastic! It’s worth mentioning, though, that Seminole High School, the local traditional public high school, posted a 100% graduation rate in 2019. The state average that year was 97.2%.

It’s also exciting to see that they promote early college access, as do most high schools in Oklahoma. I’m not sure why Smith thinks that’s unique. Our public school districts have agreements with career tech centers and higher education institutions that allow a multi-directional educational path for students and a springboard into postsecondary life.. Oklahoma’s high school juniors and seniors regularly earn college credit and even industry certification before graduation. The Academy’s specific focus on this is noteworthy, and a good example of how charter schools can target a family’s specific interests.

“As a parent with two children in Yukon Public Schools, it’s time that we step out of the Stone Age and a public education system that was designed to produce industrial workers.” – (2:45)

I’m going to come back to this one in a few paragraphs, but I’m pretty sure that there weren’t many industrial workers during the actual Stone Age.

“What we have now is Henry Ford vs. horses. We have a public education system trying to protect the horses. And we’re trying to make automobiles. And it’s just like, do you want to use a landline or a cell phone?” – (3:05)

If you can hear my exasperated sigh, it’s because I thought we did a better job teaching simile and metaphor than that in our public schools. Maybe we’re 45th, 42nd, 48th at that as well. I get that Smith, as a new member of the SBE, may not be fully up-to-speed on all the current lingo. We’re laser-focused on collegeandcareerreadiness. One word. It rolls off the tongue.

Oklahoma’s public schools do a good job of getting students ready for college. Or careers. Or the military. Or something. One way or another, we spend a considerable amount of time preparing students for whatever it is that comes next. Not every student will graduate knowing how they want to spend the next 40-50 years, and that’s fine. They all need to graduate at least knowing what they can do while they’re figuring that out.

As schools that are part of the public state system, we have to follow state standards, prepare students for state tests built around those standards, and conform to countless legislative whims that tie us back to another era. As much as I’ve seen public education evolve during my career, sometimes I feel like the only thing holding us back is state government. We’re not teaching Henry Ford’s horses to use the landline, exactly, or whatever the point of that sentence was.

“We need to completely re-think how we’re educating our kids, and in my opinion, the settlement we were able to pass in the board meeting at the end of March is just one small step towards the greater reforms that really need to happen.” – (3:20)

Please, Mr. Smith, do continue. I’m sure that we’d all love to hear about the greater reforms you’d like to see implemented.

“…[Rep. Hilbert’s Bill] would solve the two main problems the education establishment has with our settlement, which is the funding of virtual charter schools, and let’s all be honest, they’re talking about Epic, which I think has done a fantastic job. 60,000 families in Oklahoma have chosen to send their children there.” – (4:10)

Well, 60,000 students were enrolled in Epic in October. After the statewide enrollment count, however, many returned to their local districts. This happens every year.

Besides, didn’t Smith brag on the Academy of Seminole’s graduation rate as evidence of the great job they’re doing? According to a 2019 article posted on The Frontier, Epic had a graduation rate of 40%. That’s not fantastic.

“I don’t think they should vote to dissolve that entity. I think that the problem is a bunch of jealousy. I think there are people who are mad that they’re losing students. And a lot of that is because they’re having to compete for the first time.” – (4:25)

I really want to know who told Smith that anytime people don’t like you it’s because of jealousy. Sure, if you win all the time like the Yankees used to, everyone else will despise you. But sometimes – and stop me if this sounds ridiculous – people don’t like you because of legitimate grievances over the things you do. 

I personally have no ill will towards the statewide virtual charter schools that aren’t currently under state or federal investigation. And I feel no particular jealousy towards the teachers who work for Epic or the students who attend their schools. I want every student in Oklahoma to get a good education. And yes, I want families to have agency in determining what that should look like for their children.

That’s why I’m not against charter schools. I just prefer the original model that relied on private-public partnerships. And it’s why I’m not against school choice. I just prefer not to use that term as an umbrella that includes voucher programs for private schools, where the choice is still in the hands of the private schools, rather than the families.

“Oklahoma’s workforce isn’t doing so great, and a lot of that is because of the education system that we currently have in place.” – (4:55)

Is that the industrial workforce or the stone age workforce? And while we’re at it, what else do you want to blame on public schools? Bad weather? Earthquakes? Cottonwood pollen and the offensive smell of Bradford Pears?

Governor Kevin Stitt appointed Smith to the SBE in December, replacing a member who did not vote as the governor had wanted. If the SBE had voted as their legal counsel advised them to, I imagine we would have seen a rinse and repeat of that maneuver. We’re in a state right now that requires absolute fealty to its chief executive. Disagree and be gone.

During the interview, Smith briefly touches on being a product of Clinton Public Schools and the fact that his children are in Yukon Public Schools. I don’t think he’s against public schools. I genuinely think he wants them to be re-imagined, and that’s fine. Unfortunately, provoking and insulting those of us who have chosen public education as a profession won’t transform us into a #toptenstate.

The 10 Most Important Slides from the State Auditor and Inspector’s Epic Presentation

April 7, 2021 Comments off

Yesterday, State Auditor and Inspector Cindy Byrd’s gave a virtual presentation over her office’s findings in the investigation of Epic Charter Schools. The 45 minute video is now all over the World Wide Web Web and continues to be shared. It should also be required viewing for all educators parents, and … well, taxpayers. And probably legislators.

As important as the presentation is, I know that the tl;dr phenomenon applies to video content as well. I taught high school English long enough to understand that just because I assign it, doesn’t mean you’ll read all of it. That being said, let me cut it up into bite-size pieces for you.

I have taken screenshots of what I think are the ten most important slides from Auditor Byrd’s presentation. I’ll do my best to summarize them, but honestly, watching the whole thing (with captioning), is really worth it. After watching it in the morning, I even kept it on loop again yesterday afternoon while working in my office.

1. Governor Stitt initiated the audit process, writing to Auditor Byrd, “I respectfully request an audit of Epic Charter School and all related entities.” This isn’t the first slide in the presentation, but I’m doing the first two in reverse order. Too many times, I’ve seen the state’s leading far-right think tank accuse Epic’s detractors of being anti-choice.

Hardly.

This audit, which began six months into Stitt’s term, is about assuring that tax dollars go where they’re supposed to.

The other notable part here is that Stitt addresses not only Epic, but also all related entities. As Byrd demonstrates clearly, there is very little – if any – space between these entities.

2. The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation was already investigating Epic before the governor wrote to Auditor Byrd. The search warrant below was issued three days before the governor sent that letter. I’m not a lawyer, but embezzlement and racketeering both sound pretty serious.

3. Epic Youth Services received a PPP loan for $42,700. On first glance, it’s a fairly small amount. But Epic Youth Services reported to the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission that they had zero employees from 2010 through 2018. Then in 2019 they hired two lobbyists. Epic Youth Services, which takes 10% of all of Epic’s state aid, now apparently has three employees and needs federal Covid relief funds to keep them on the job – whatever job that is. Auditor Byrd doesn’t seem to think that the operating agreement makes that clear.

4. Epic One-on-One (full-virtual) and Epic Blended submit identical invoices every month. That’s right. The percentages you see below are identical for the all-online school and for the brick-and-mortar school. I’m also not sure what child nutrition services are needed for Epic One-on-One, and why EYS bills them for it every month. One more thing…if they have three employees, none of which are certified teachers, what are the certified salaries?

If Epic has their way, we’ll never know. They claim that all the funds that go to EYS are private once the check clears. I get the premise. That’s like saying when my district’s milk check to the dairy clears, it’s not state money anymore. On the other hand, we still haven’t clearly established why Epic is buying milk for virtual students. In any case, the identical monthly invoices are fishy.

5. Epic claims the state can’t audit $125 million in funds that were allocated from 2015-20. On top of the 10% management fee that goes to EYS, Epic withholds $1000 per student for their “learning fund.” They have provided examples of use and ranges of expenses, but they have not brought receipts. As Byrd says in the presentation, “During the course of the audit more than $125 million of student educational funds were transferred to a company with no transparency and no accountability.”

Again, how is anyone ok with this? If you believe in school choice, don’t you worry that this hurts your cause? If you believe in fiscal responsibility, why aren’t you outraged? Every other school district has to keep a paper trail of every dollar we spend.

6. Byrd’s office has to deal with five separate law firms that Epic employs. This explain why the State Auditor and Inspector’s office has had to issue more than 50 subpoenas to date. Byrd says that responses have been late and incomplete. The next part of the investigation can’t move forward until a judge rules whether or not the learning funds are public funds and therefore subject to audit.

Five law firms. Just wow.

7. For the current school year, about $90 million more of state funding is hidden from view. We all knew that Epic (and other statewide virtual schools that apparently don’t self-deal with their own parallel companies like something out of Ozark) was going to gain students during the pandemic. That only increases the onus for transparency. Apparently, it also cranked up the necessity on the part of Epic to avoid it.

8. The scope of the audit is actually narrow. Byrd isn’t saying that charter schools, virtual instruction, or school choice more broadly are bad concepts. Again, it’s important to remember that our most school choice forward governor ever requested this audit.

I know good teachers who work for Epic. This isn’t a knock on the work they do or an attack on their character. This audit report questions the legality and ethics of the actions of Epic’s leaders.

For the record, I’m not against charter schools, virtual instruction, or school choice, other than vouchers for private schools. Discussions of school choice aren’t binary. And we shouldn’t paint charter schools with a singular brush.

9 & 10. Senate Bill 895 is sketchy. Shortly after Byrd’s office released their findings, Senator Paul Rosino (R – OKC) filed a bill that would strip her office of the authority to perform this kind of audit. Imagine an agency under investigation being able to choose their own investigators. Worse yet, this bill is based on suggestions of Epic’s co-founders.

Byrd’s office released her findings on October 1. As the Tulsa World points out, Rosino’s campaign received donations from Epic people on the 2nd. Then he filed this bill. Yeah, it probably means nothing.

Again, I can’t urge you strongly enough to play the video. Just keep it on in the background while you’re cooking dinner or answering email. Break it up into chunks. Turn it into a Reader’s Theater for your drama class.

Well, maybe don’t do the last one.

This is a very big deal, and we can’t quit asking for accountability. SB 895 has already passed the Senate and is now waiting to be heard in committee in the House. We can’t be complacent about this.

Contact your representative. Tell a friend to do the same.

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