July 8, 2022

John Thompson: In Oklahoma, The Struggle Continues

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John Thompson reports from Oklahoma on a major charter scandal bust, a bought-and-paid for education chief, and more struggles with school privatization. 

Oklahoma’s big education news this month was the arrest of EPIC Online Charter School co-founders David Chaney and Ben Harris, and former Chief Financial Officer Josh Brock, who were “charged with racketeering, embezzlement, obtaining money by false pretense, conspiracy to commit a felony, violating the Oklahoma Computer Crimes Act, submitting false documents to the state and unlawful proceeds.”
Although they didn’t get the same attention, two stories about EPIC’s latest scandals and the role of big money undermining public education, also explain what is happening in Oklahoma and across the nation. Epic’s crooked past must be read in the context of today’s scandals, as well as the assaults on our public institutions that are being ramped up.  Due to the last few years of drama, so many aspects of school reform, as well as the rightwing’s vitriolic tactics have changed and yet remained the same – or worse.

These Oklahoma headlines illustrate the evolution of the “winners take all” mindset of privatizers. Just a few years ago, protecting Oklahoma public schools from the venture capitalists’ takeover was something that often united conservative Republicans, Democrats, and educators. One reason we worked together was that the disgust with EPIC Online Charter Schools crossed party lines.

Over a year ago, the state auditor found EPIC had been “funneling state money into the founders’ pockets, misreporting administrative costs to avoid millions in penalties and refusing to cooperate with state officials.” Then, an Oklahoma County Grand Jury concluded that Chaney and Harris, and their company, Epic Youth Services, were “ripe for fraud.” At that, EPIC severed ties with Chaney and Harris.

But now, the Oklahoma Watch’s Jennifer Palmer reports that a new audit, which also will be sent to the District Attorney, discovered how the same type of behaviors persist. It found that the new EPIC superintendent, Bart Banfield, “received $67,500 on top of his salary and his wife got an extra $34,167,” and “Administrators received bonus payments totaling $8.5 million that year.” Moreover, the “bonuses weren’t authorized by the school board and in some cases, exceeded the amount in their employment contract.”

Palmer also explains that, “Regulators found more than 39,000 days that shouldn’t have counted for state funding, totaling about $780,000,” and absenteeism increased by 3,444% and 9% of students missed half of the school year. And once again, an algorithm resulted in “nearly 5,000 students [who] were reported to be absent for 14 days, then present for 1 day, then absent again for 14 days.” Apparently, that was tied to a “vendor relationship” between Chaney and Harris and a company called Futuristic Education that EPIC retained.

Ordinarily, a significant number of Republican legislators would have learned from EPIC’s ongoing scandals. But, true-believers in Trumpism, as well as often unnamed donors, have doubled down on the politics of destruction. Under Gov. Kevin Stitt almost all Republicans came to support ramped up privatization efforts, whether they liked it or not.

For instance, an investigation by The Frontier and Oklahoma Watch found that Stitt’s Secretary of Education Ryan Walters “makes at least $120,000 a year as executive director of a nonprofit organization that keeps its donors secret.” And, it found:

Under Walters’ leadership, Every Kid Counts Oklahoma was the public face of Stitt’s program that distributed $1,500 grants to families in 2020 funded with $8 million in federal coronavirus relief money. The money was intended to buy tutoring and educational supplies. But a lack of safeguards allowed parents to use some of the funds to buy TVs, gaming consoles and home appliances.


Emails and other records show that Walters helped secure the no-bid contract with a Florida company to distribute the money. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General has opened an audit into how the state used those funds.

Perhaps the biggest victory in this grim year was the defeat of the Oklahoma Empowerment Act, which failed by three votes. KJRH explained:

Had it passed, it would have taken more than $3,000 of state funds allocated for a student and put them into a savings account the parents can access. The money could have been used toward private school tuition, tutoring services, or specialized after-school or summer programs.

But that leads to this month’s second report on how Oklahoma’s politics has changed and not changed. The Oklahoman’s Carmen Forman reported that the few Republicans who opposed the bill “are being targeted by several well-funded conservative groups,” For instance:


The School Freedom Fund Oklahoma, a political action committee that’s an extension of the Washington-based Club for Growth has spent at least $658,135 on mailers and television and radio commercials against five incumbent lawmakers and in support of one.


Moreover, “A dark money group led by Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs officials also has spent more than $400,000 against some of the same Republican lawmakers.” And:


Republican Rep. Rhonda Baker has faced negative mailers and television and radio commercials alleging she opposes “school freedom” and that she voted with Democrats to raise taxes, as more than three-fourths of state lawmakers in the GOP-led Oklahoma Legislature did in 2018 to boost teacher pay.


The campaign against Rep. Baker received funding from Oklahoma Federation for Children Action Fund, the local arm of Betsy DeVos’s organization. And she and others have been attacked for being “fake Republicans.” Baker won the Republican primary, however, by 1% of the vote, and other targeted legislators won their primaries. But, the Oklahoman stressed, “three Republican state lawmakers lost their reelection bids Tuesday after school choice proponents poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into a handful of legislative races.” .

And, Rachel Moore, the wife of Rep. Anthony Moore, who did not support Stitt’s voucher plan, says that the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation is investigating what she calls “concerning and unsettling” text messages to her. A County judge “granted Moore’s wife emergency protective orders against four Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs employees, including two who are leading People for Opportunity.”


For decades, Oklahoma was in the pocket of elites who may have been just as ruthless as today’s billionaires and Trumpian followers. But our state had improved, or so I thought. I have to believe that most conservatives who are going along with this takeover of our democratic institutions are closer to the few who stood in support of public education, and probably the former Republican Joy Hoffmeister, who is now challenging Stitt for governor.


But as in the case of the other hateful campaigns of the last three or four years, the real issue is protecting our democracy and our children’s future. Republicans should look at the reoccurring scandals with EPIC and ask why they still are so devoted to “the Market.” Even if a legislator sincerely believes that the Market should rule in terms of economic issues, why should they remain silent in the face of these false campaigns against public, democratic institutions? Those who know better but who are going along with intertwined privatization campaigns, cannot be compared with the handful who have demonstrated integrity when standing up to Stitt.

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