While other states have taken action to prevent them from opening to the public, the number of online charter schools is set to grow significantly in Oklahoma.
The state Education Department already has provided several million dollars to the state's two online charter schools, despite questions about the effectiveness of such institutions.
Now, three additional online charter schools want to join the ranks in Oklahoma as the state Board of Education investigates whether one of the two existing schools may have misrepresented how many full-time students are enrolled.
Epic One on One charter school, whose practices are being looked into by the Education Department, will receive more than $10 million in state funds this school year. It was founded in 2011 and has about 3,000 enrolled students, Education Department records show.
The other online charter school operating in Oklahoma — the Oklahoma Virtual Charter Academy — will likely get millions, as well. But as of right now, it's only been allotted about $80,000 for the current school year.
Tricia Pemberton, a spokeswoman for the Education Department, said online charter schools don't get all of their funding until a midyear count is completed and certified.
“Existing charters can only count resident students in the initial allocation,” Pemberton said. “Nonresident students (those outside of the sponsoring district's boundaries) are counted at midyear if they are continuing to be served by the virtual school.
“Oklahoma Virtual Charter only had 26 resident students for the initial count. They may get more money at midyear.”
Indeed, an analysis of Education Department records shows that the Choctaw-Nicoma Park School District, the sponsoring district for the Oklahoma Virtual Charter Academy, received roughly $3 million in additional state aid when the online-only school opened to the public.
Both online charter schools in Oklahoma have strong ties to for-profit companies that have drawn scrutiny in other states for their business practices and how they calculate enrolled students.
Epic One on One is serviced by Advanced Academics, while Oklahoma Virtual Charter Academy works with K12 Inc. to provide educational services to its students.
Two of the three potential online charter schools, whose applications are pending, also have ties to for-profit companies, Education Department records show.
K12 Inc. draws scrutiny
Education officials in states across the nation have been targeting K12 Inc. in the past year, for a variety of reasons, according to media reports.
An online charter school in Colorado recently ended its relationship with K12 Inc. after auditors determined the company had overcharged the state for students who may or may not have been enrolled at the school.
In March, the publicly traded company settled a class-action lawsuit brought by its own shareholders for $6.75 million. The lawsuit alleged that K12 Inc. had misled investors, mainly about the academic successes of the schools using its products, and that the company had overcharged states for students who had dropped out of the online programs but remained enrolled.
In Florida, a preliminary report released this year by that state's Education Department found that K12 Inc. was asking employees to teach subjects they were not certified to teach and that it had inflated its enrollment numbers.
Over the summer, Christopher Cerf, the education commissioner in New Jersey, halted the opening of the state's first two full-fledged online charter schools. He cited legal concerns and the fact that there is no evidence that online-only schools help students prepare for college and excel on standardized tests.
Call for legislation
Earlier in the month, state schools Superintendent Janet Barresi called for legislation to tighten regulations and standards for online charter schools in Oklahoma.
In making the call to lawmakers, Barresi pointed out that Oklahoma's public schools “predate statehood,” but that online-only charter schools have only been around for a few years.
“It is vital to ensure these schools are held to the same standards as their brick-and-mortar counterparts so their students can receive a high-quality education,” Barresi said in a statement.
“Technological advances continue to quickly change the face of education. That holds great potential, but we must ensure that all of our children receive excellent education.”
Barresi said existing online or “virtual” charter schools will need to renegotiate their state contracts by July, when the new Virtual Charter School Board will assume the responsibility of overseeing such institutions. She also said student attendance at online-only charter schools — and how it is measured — will need to be clarified. Work also must be done to increase financial transparency with such schools, Barresi said.
The superintendent, who is up for re-election next year, said she has spoken with lawmakers about sponsoring a bill that accomplish these things.
“Virtual charters point to some innovative possibilities in public education as the result of improved communications, but such changes come with challenges,” the superintendent said.
“Accountability, transparency and rigor remain crucial cornerstones to a high-quality education — cornerstones that would be protected through this type of legislation.”