Fight over Epic’s California School Heats Up

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Oklahoma City-based Epic Charter Schools’ venture into California took shots from a local superintendent recently for what he called false promises and predatory practices.

Specifically, Mike Matsuda, superintendent of the Anaheim Union High School District, took issue with Epic’s learning fund, a school-controlled account parents use to purchase curriculum and extracurricular activities. He said the learning fund appears to violate California’s constitution, which provides for a free school system for all students.

California students receive $1,500 in their learning fund each school year, or nearly double what Oklahoma students are provided. Epic also provides laptops and internet service to students separate from the fund, said Ben Harris, Epic’s co-founder.

Speaking Sept. 14 to the Orange County School Board, which oversees Epic, Matsuda questioned whether the board should have concerns about Californians’ tax dollars going to Oklahoma vendors and to a for-profit company, which manages the school, with virtually no transparency.

“If Epic is allowed to grow without any transparency, accountability and oversight, the futures of students, families and the greater community will be at stake,” Matsuda said.

One of the Orange County board members defended Epic, calling Matsuda’s rant “insult inflicting, filled with malice, misinformation and pure fiction.”

Epic stands to siphon students from Matsuda’s district.

Another member had requested a discussion about Epic’s marketing and enrollment practices; he had seen the school’s website using the term “accredited,” which it’s not in California, meeting minutes show.

Harris, who attended the meeting, said the word was a mistake made by their website team and it has since been changed.

He said Epic plans to pursue accreditation in California through the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. Harris told the board they weren’t trying to mislead anyone.

On Tuesday, Harris responded to Matsuda’s remarks.

“While Epic and others continue to seek 21st century solutions to meet the educational needs of K-12 students, there are still those who are set on defending the status quo,” Harris said. “Mr. Matsuda has long been a member of that camp.”

A student’s educational opportunities should not be limited by their home address, he continued. “His viewpoint is particularly limiting to low-income students, who do not possess the same ability to move to another school district as their more affluent peers in order to obtain a quality education.”

California has more charter schools and charter school students than any other U.S. state, and is characterized as the “charter Wild West” in a recent Washington Post story that mentions Epic. The story said researchers have found California charter schools with enrollment policies that violate state and federal law, abysmal academic achievement, lax oversight and financial mismanagement.

Epic, Oklahoma’s largest virtual charter school with more than 8,000 students, joined the fray this year by forming the nonprofit Next Generation Education to operate a virtual school based in Anaheim.

The Orange County School Board conditionally approved Epic’s proposal in November despite a scathing 20-page report from its own charter review team recommending denial. The Anaheim City School District board previously rejected Epic’s proposal and it was considered by Orange County on appeal.

Epic is not statewide in California, but enrolls students from the state’s five most populous counties: Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego. The school began the year with more than 60 students.

Harris previously described the dual-state arrangement, in which staff members in Oklahoma provide administrative services to both schools.

“The idea is the more that California grows, the more it will benefit Oklahoma because it will lower our administrative costs in proportion to our overall budget,” he explained.