Virtual Charter School’s Founders Ramp Up Political Contributions

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Mashiur Rahaman / Oklahoma Watch

Epic Virtual Charter School’s dramatic growth has been driven in part by marketing efforts such as creating a children’s play area at Penn Square Mall in Oklahoma City. As an online charter school, Epic does not have campuses or buses, although some of its students do meet together as part of its blended learning centers.

Leaders of the state’s largest virtual charter school contributed at least $145,000 total to the campaigns of dozens of candidates this year, records reveal, a show of increasing political muscle as the school is experiencing dramatic growth.

The contributions by David Chaney and Ben Harris, co-founders of Epic Virtual Charter School, as well as Chaney’s wife, Kristin, were made legally and not with school funds, they say. But the amounts far exceed those given by comparable school leaders.

Chaney’s and Harris’ donations include a combined $23,800 for Joy Hofmeister, state superintendent of public instruction; more than $11,000 for Mike Hunter, state attorney general; $5,000 total to John Paul Jordan, a former legislator who was running for a district judge seat; and gubernatorial candidates Mick Cornett, Gary Richardson and Kevin Stitt. They also donated to the campaigns of more than 50 legislative candidates.

The totals include all donations except those less than $1,000 made after Oct. 22.

Chaney and Harris, in a joint statement provided by spokeswoman Shelly Hickman, said their donations were customary.

“As thousands of other Oklahomans routinely do, individual members of our team donated, from their own pockets, to candidates who support public education,” they said. “This is not unlike other school leaders in Oklahoma, as well as education advocacy organizations and their lobbyists who donate to campaigns.”

A check of Oklahoma Ethics Commission records, however, found that none of the 10 highest paid superintendents gave more than $1,000 total to political candidates and political action committees, and some didn’t give at all.

Epic’s two leaders also outspent the political action committee for the largest teachers union, the Oklahoma Education Association, which has 35,000 members across the state. The association’s Fund for Children and Public Education contributed $117,000 to candidates this election cycle, compared with Chaney and Harris’s $145,000.

Further Growth Ahead?

Chaney and Harris declined to elaborate on their political strategy. But their giving may indicate an impending push for laws allowing the school to further expand, said Eric Proctor, a state lawmaker and former teacher who termed out of office this year.

Already, the school is experiencing substantial growth. Epic has 21,000 students enrolled so far in 2018-19 through its two models – a fully virtual school and a blended version offering online classes and optional in-person instruction, said Shelly Hickman, a spokeswoman for the school.

That’s up from 13,000 in 2017-18 – an increase of 8,000 students, the size of the entire Enid Public Schools district. Epic’s size will place it on par with the fourth or fifth largest school district in Oklahoma when 2018-19 enrollment numbers are released by the state. Epic is statewide and enrolls students living in every county.

But the school’s expansion may not be what’s driving the political spending.

The donations also could indicate the school’s leaders are trying to soften criticism of student academic performance, said Todd Ziebarth, senior vice president for state advocacy at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, a national pro charter school group that advocates for improving the quality of virtual schools.

“There are very significant problems with the performance of the (virtual) schools,” he said. “One of the strategies to remaining open is making donations.” He pointed to virtual schools’ high rates of churn, low graduation rates and lagging student proficiency and growth.

Oklahoma schools haven’t received a grade in two years, but the state’s revamped school performance report cards are expected to be released next month.

Ziebarth said virtual charter schools currently aren’t serving students or taxpayers well. The growth in students is driven in part by aggressive marketing. Epic uses giveaways of big-ticket items like concert tickets to reward referrals, and recently opened a heavily branded children’s play area at Penn Square Mall.

Where the Money Went

Of the 50 legislative candidates to whom Chaney and Harris donated, seven were part of the so-called teacher caucus, a wave of current and former educators running for office in Oklahoma.

Notably, Epic leaders donated to the re-election campaigns of four lawmakers who voted against the tax package, known as HB 1010xx, that funded the teacher pay raise and went into effect this fall. Other groups supporting public education did the opposite, targeting lawmakers who voted no and supporting their opponents. A number of those incumbents were defeated.

The Oklahoma Education Association fund didn’t contribute to any of those four candidates. There were about a dozen candidates favored by Chaney and Harris who also received contributions from the association fund.

For some donations, Chaney and Harris’s employer is listed as Epic Youth Services, a for-profit company that manages the school; for others, it’s Epic Charter School. On others, there are other business entities listed. Chaney is the superintendent of Epic and owner of Epic Youth Services; Harris’ title is co-founder but he’s involved in the school’s administration and its 2016 expansion to California.

K12 Inc., the country’s largest virtual charter school operator, based in Virginia, didn’t donate directly to any Oklahoma candidates in 2017 or 2018 despite operating two virtual schools in Oklahoma. Records show one donation of $15,000 in 2016 to Majority Fund, an independent expenditure group. K12 has spent millions of dollars on lobbying and campaign donations in other states.