Six Oklahoma City-area parents have sued Epic Charter Schools saying the virtual school violated the state Constitution when it unenrolled their students because the children were simultaneously attending Epic and a private school.
Although Epic’s contract with state regulators prohibits the virtual charter school from providing instruction to private school or home-school students, the parents argue that this violates the constitutional requirement that Oklahoma provide a system of free public schools that “shall be open to all the children of the state.”
Two of the families suing Epic enroll their children two days a week in a private school in addition to Epic. Another family enrolls their children five days a week in a private school plus Epic.
The lawsuit, filed in Oklahoma County District Court, also alleges Epic violated the Oklahoma Charter Schools Act’s ban on discrimination. When Epic unenrolled their children, the parents say, it amounted to “discrimination against those students that have the income level to attend private school.”
If the parents prevail, Epic also wins.
“This lawsuit benefits them (Epic), absolutely,” said attorney Matthew Frisby, who is representing the parents. He said there could be 200 families or more in the same situation as the six parents who filed the suit.
Epic is not disputing the facts in the lawsuit, according to its response.
“There is simply a disagreement between the parties on what Oklahoma law says about dual enrollment and students’ ability to enjoy both aspects of the public vs. private education at the same time,” Frisby said.
Epic has supported dual enrollment in its virtual school and private school or home-school programs, according to affidavits filed in court by a state investigator looking into Epic’s practices. Epic’s legal filing responding to the parents’ lawsuit affirms that stance. But in April, the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board told Epic the practice was not allowed.
Epic started prohibiting dual enrollment and “has been vetting previously enrolled students in Epic that are dual enrolled,” an attorney for Epic wrote in its filing. The school did this by adding a question to the enrollment form asking if a family was enrolled in private school full- or part-time, said Shelly Hickman, a spokeswoman for Epic.
“This question was added following a year of discussions with our authorizer because the issue of dual public-private school enrollment is not addressed in state law,” she said Wednesday. “We look forward to this issue gaining legal clarity.”
At issue is a clause in Epic’s contract that states: “Under no circumstances shall the charter school and/or its program of instruction … be used to provide or otherwise supplement instruction of home-schooled students or students enrolled in private schools, or used as a method of generating revenue for students who are being home-schooled or are enrolled in private schools.”
The parent’s lawsuit stresses that the Oklahoma Charter Schools Act does not prohibit dual enrollment. The act states that a charter can’t be “used as a method of generating revenue for students who are being home-schooled and are not being educated at an organized charter school site.” The parents deny they used Epic to generate money for students.
The act doesn’t elaborate on what generating revenue means, or whether the language is referring to generating revenue for the charter school.
Epic, the state’s largest virtual charter school, is under investigation by state and federal agencies over allegations of financial wrongdoing and fraud, which the school denies. Dual enrollment and the practice of enrolling “ghost students” – or private or home-school students who received no instruction from Epic – are part of the investigators’ inquiry.
Parents Andrew and April Grieb, Andy and Amy Brooks, and Jacob and Charissa Dearmon are plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Their children were all withdrawn from Epic’s rolls in August or September, according to the lawsuit. The private school or schools they have attended are not identified in the lawsuit.
They fully participated in Epic and did not ask for their online curriculum to be modified so they could also attend a private school, the lawsuit states. The parents say no public money was used for the private education. The private school or schools the children have attended are not identified in the lawsuit.
“The parents aren’t asking for any money for their private school” Frisby said. “Why can’t they get both?”
Hickman, the Epic spokesperson, in March said she wasn’t aware of students who were dual-enrolled full-time, but that some students participated in private supplemental services like tutoring and co-ops.