Epic Schools
The State Auditor and Investigators Office released the work papers surrounding the Epic Charter Schools audit on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020. (Tres Savage)

Growing up in Oklahoma, physical evidence of corruption was always in plain sight. Riding down the highway, my father would tell me how the road’s surface just changed from one type of asphalt to another because that was all the contractor’s bribes paid for.

When I became old enough to work blue collar jobs, I realized how the disregard for safety laws repeatedly put workers like me in life-threatening positions. On my first professional job, my supervisor told me about the time he asked a consultant, “What does two plus two equal?”

The consultant locked the door, pulled down the window shades, and whispered, “What do you want it to equal?”

Today’s scandals aren’t as readily apparent as the crimes of the past. They are hidden in “the cloud,” in complex computer systems. For that reason, the rapidly unfolding Epic Charter School scandal is both a case study in the dangers of today’s data-driven economy and the failure of corporate school reform.

When I became a teacher, corruption seemed nonexistent in public education (and today’s OKCPS clearly respects the law.) Back then, schools didn’t seem to engage in more or less gamesmanship with numbers than similar institutions. In my first teaching jobs, I was warned about the danger of not complying with special education law. In contrast to more typical violations, breaking disability law could cost your teaching license as well as your job.

Twenty-something years later, I sought to return from retirement and was hired at Seeworth Academy, a now-closed charter school that is being investigated for its special education practices. I was frequently warned than any questioning of special education procedures would result in immediate termination.

Education reforms open door for subtle corruption

Even as the public face of overt corruption in the old industrial world receded, the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 spurred new statistical tricks so that two plus two equals “transformative gains.” It had always been clear that attendance and graduation numbers were often bogus. After NCLB, we saw how easy it was to drop thousands of absences.

The next easiest set of tricks to be scaled up was “credit recovery,” or what my students called, “exercising the right click finger.” Who knows how many truant students graduated by “working off” absences, which was legal, and how many graduated because of the process called “making absences disappear.”

As NCLB broke down education’s strongest ethical walls, we continually learned tricks from new hires from Texas where data-driven accountability was pioneered. We heard that one way to improve test scores was to find legal ways to turn FAY (full year students) into NFAY kids whose test scores didn’t count on schools’ reports.

At first, fabricating metrics was a relatively victimless process. When market-driven reform began, statistical gamesmanship became a means of self-defense. Then sanctions were dumped on teenagers with low test scores. Eventually, the damage done to students — even our youngest ones — exceeded the harm done to educators. That is another reason why this week’s National Public Radio report on holding back Oklahoma third graders for failing to pass their reading tests is so important.

NPR’s Alexandra Starr drew on experts who explained how short-term benefits of third grade retention “dissipate over time,” while increasing children’s anxiety. It made me re-read Jennifer Palmer’s great work on holding back 10,345 Oklahoma kids in one year in kindergarten through second grade, so they wouldn’t have to retain as many third graders.

So, how did test and punish become so normal?  How did we go down that dehumanizing slope into systems where the punitive is seen as normal, even for our youngest students? Data-driven reform may have begun as a way to force teachers to comply. Then high-stakes testing was dumped on teenagers. Now, stressful incentives and disincentives mean that 3,977 kindergarten pupils were retained in 2015-16.

Epic details will be interesting to track

This brings us to the latest national and local headlines. I previously focused on the damage done to classroom instruction by competition-driven reforms, but wave after wave of financial scandals can’t be ignored. The national news recently proclaimed in Asleep at the Wheel, how “up to $1 billion in federal funds [were] wasted on charter schools that never opened, or opened and then closed because of mismanagement and other reasons.”

Even as Oklahoma City struggles with the recent closure of Seeworth Academy, due to alleged fraud, another scandal has overshadowed it. In Nurial Martinez-Keel’s story in The Oklahoman titled Epic embezzled millions with ghost students OSBI says, we learn about OSBI claims that “between 2013 and 2018, David Chaney and Ben Harris unlawfully received $10 million in profits from Epic Youth Services.”

During the upcoming weeks, we will surely read more about allegations that the online charter leaders “enticed ghost students to enroll in Epic by offering each student an annual learning fund ranging from $800 to $1,000.”

We’ll learn about the roles played by parents and teachers, and how hard it is to prevent online fraud. I hope we also gain insights into the students who appear to have been enrolled in name only and ask whether we wasted millions of dollars partially because we needed to pretend that thousands of struggling kids haven’t been abandoned by our besieged schools.