Oklahoma Watch Response to Epic Commentary

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David Fritze

Last week, Epic Charter Schools issued a lengthy commentary on our reporter Jennifer Palmer’s story, “Former Epic Teachers Describe Pressure to Manipulate Enrollment.” Most of the commentary was written by two former journalists now employed by Epic.

As executive editor of Oklahoma Watch, I want to emphasize one point above all others in response: We absolutely stand by our story and the facts presented.

I won’t go through every argument made by these Epic representatives, but I will address a few key points.

Why we published on Wednesday, June 26. Our reporter had been seeking detailed responses from Epic for weeks on the issues raised by former teachers whom Palmer had contacted and interviewed on her own. These teachers were not among the four who filed intent-to-sue notices with Epic, but their concerns about student-withdrawal practices were the same. When Palmer interviewed them, she did not yet know about the tort-claim notices.

On June 3, Palmer first questioned Epic’s spokeswoman about the teachers’ allegations and sent her additional detail about the allegations June 10; Palmer received responses on June 11. Those responses, as well as a two-sentence email from Epic on June 17, are summarized in the story. On June 20, after learning about the legal claim notices, Palmer asked Epic for responses about those. Epic said it would have legal filings on June 27 in response to the claim notices. Epic actually didn’t produce the legal filings until June 28, when it published them on its own website rather than responding to our records request. By the night of June 26, I decided we had given Epic sufficient time to address the issues raised by seven former teachers, and publication of the story was in order. In the story, we reported Epic would soon respond to the legal claim notices, thus designating a place in the story where we would add Epic’s legal responses and link to them. We did so.

Epic’s demand for teachers’ names in advance. Epic’s spokeswoman pressed us to get the names of the former teachers we interviewed – the ones who hadn’t taken any legal action – in advance of publication. She claimed she could not respond to the issues they raised unless she verified their employment and assessed their credibility. (She did not mention the tort-claim notices, three of which indicate they were filed with Epic in May and which we didn’t learn about until June.) Epic accused us of using anonymous sources, even though we hadn’t published anything attributed to anonymous sources; we never did. We declined to provide teachers’ names in advance because we were still reporting the story. We believed it was our job to determine their credibility and let them decide whether to go on the record. All of the teachers ultimately agreed to go public despite their fears of reaction.

As a taxpayer-funded school, Epic is subject to the same level of scrutiny as any other public educational institution. Epic is the state’s largest provider of online-only K-12 learning, a concept that is still hotly debated across the country. Oklahoma Watch will continue to hold virtual schools like Epic, as well as traditional brick-and-mortar schools, up for scrutiny, while remaining objective. We are a nonpartisan investigative news organization and are committed to probing for the facts that shed light on public entities even in the face of their objections.

-David Fritze, Executive Editor
dfritze@oklahomawatch.org