Accountability Education Reform Health Oklahoma Safety Virtual Charter Schools

John Thompson in Oklahoma: Grifters Gonna Keep Grifting

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John Thompson, historian and retired teacher, writes often about what is happening in Oklahoma. It is often not good for public schools and teachers because of the state’s awful legislature, controlled by oil-and-gas billionaire Harold Hamm, and its Republican Governor Kevin Stitt. The best education leader in the state is state Commissioner Joy Hofmeister, who continues to protect students and teachers from political shenanigans.

Here is the latest from Thompson:

As the COVID pandemic began in Oklahoma City, before Trumpian-style pressure to reopen bars, in-person restaurants and large gatherings, and before the resistance to masks and other public health tools sparked a super-spread, it looked like the public and nonprofit sectors were uniting in a team effort to protect public health. Clearly, online charter schools had advantages over traditional public schools in providing virtual and hybrid instruction, but there was reason to hope that the corporate reform wars could be put behind us (at least in terms of local charter leaders.)

The for-profit EPIC Charter Schools wasn’t likely to change its financial and political misbehavior, but its years of experience in delivering online instruction gave it a head start in providing virtual learning during the shutdown. Sure enough, its enrollment soared to around 30,000.

On the other hand, due to years of financial shenanigans, it was inevitable that multiple investigations would prompt penalties, headlines, and other bad news for EPIC, and it seemed certain that it would continue to fight back bitterly, as opposed to making a good faith effort to improve instruction. And there was no chance that its allies – state, and national corporate reformers and politicians committed to uncontrolled competition – would slow their privatization campaigns.  

The bad news for EPIC et. al came as predicted. A state audit showed that EPIC improperly classified $8.9 million, and a follow-up report found an additional $800,000 in misclassified administrative spending. The state Board of Education demanded the return of $11 million. The Statewide Virtual Charter School Board moved to terminate its contract with Epic One-on-One. Governor Kevin Stitt apparently retaliated by removing members of two state boards for votes that didn’t conform to his education agenda.  

And the initial good news overshadowed a new set of problems for EPIC. A five-month investigation by Oklahoma Watch and Frontline revealed that many EPIC graduates’ are unprepared for college. The investigation found that students “described a system that made it easy to speed through classes and little or no structured counseling.”  (The data was released at the beginning of the pandemic, but it describes a dynamic that could become more crucial to EPIC’s effort to retain its new influx of online students.) 

In 2015, the 35% of Epic students met all four of ACT’s college readiness benchmarks – in English, math, reading and science. As enrollment increased, just 4% of 2019 students met the benchmarks, compared to 15% statewide. Perhaps prophetically, EPIC’s graduating class’ average ACT score dropped from 20.5 in 2018 to 16.5 in 2019.

Similarly, Oklahoma Watch and The Frontier have reported more bad news for competition-driven reformers. For instance, the Oklahoma City Public Schools had twice rejected Sovereign Charter School’s charter, but in 2018 it was sponsored by Rose State community college. Rose State is also reported to be considering the charter sponsorships of Santa Fe South charter schools, and W.K. Jackson Leadership Academy, now a private religious school.

By the summer of 2020, Sovereign was down to 40 students after Oklahoma City Public Schools rejected it twice. Sovereign took out a $700,000 loan, but its enrollment didn’t increase enough. So, the State Department of Education put it on probation.

Then, what State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister characterized as a “rickety structure” was proposed. Sovereign would merge with Santa Fe South, which would assume its facility’s lease, as well as its debt. Ironically, that building complex had been the home of the once-influential Seeworth Academy charter school which was taken over after a financial scandal.

At this point, the privatizers’ big, remaining weapon is an attack on urban schools and teachers unions for not reopening in-person instruction.  ChoiceMatters, the rightwing the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA),  Governor Stitt and Secretary of Education Ryan Walters, and a new organization, Oklahoma Parent Voice, pushed the agenda that “Enough is Enough,” and schools must immediately reopen. But their rally at the Capitol only attracted about two dozen parents.

The campaign to immediately reopen urban schools is clearly an anti-union, anti-public school tactic. But it may be undercut by the fact that almost all Oklahoma City charters closed their in-person instruction around the time the November super-spread forced the OKCPS to limit itself to virtual instruction.

A recent survey of teachers by the Oklahoma Education Association found that teachers are “stressed,” “overwhelmed,” and “scared.” About 12% of respondents had contracted COVID-19,  the teachers’ estimated average stress level was 7.7 on a scale of 10. 

When charters reopen, are their teachers likely to be less scared?

But maybe the rightwing won’t need to invest so much political capital in attacking teachers and unions. After all, Gov. Stitt may have found a new way to stimulate the economy. He made “a direct pitch to boost tourism in the state. Stitt stars in a 30-second promotional video encouraging those in neighboring states to visit Oklahoma. The video conveys a message that Oklahoma is open for business, and underscores the business friendly approach Stitt has taken to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

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