Tuesday, October 20, 2020

OCPA column: Explaining Epic Charter’s appeal


Explaining Epic Charter’s appeal
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 services 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.

Jonathan Small serves as president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.

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