Oklahoma Empowerment Act
Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat (R-OKC) answers questions from Sen. J.J. Dossett (D-Owasso) regarding SB 1647 during a Senate Education Committee meeting Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022. (Tres Savage)

While the Senate Education Committee was advancing a controversial measure to create educational savings accounts for Oklahoma families this morning, the House Common Education Committee was moving forward three bills to reform the administration and oversight of public charter schools. The dichotomy highlighted slight differences in opinion over education priorities between the two chambers during the second week of this year’s legislative session.

After more than two hours of questions and debate, Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat’s SB 1647, also known as the Oklahoma Empowerment Act, advanced out of the Senate committee on an 8-7 vote. As leaders of the upper chamber, Treat and Senate Floor Leader Greg McCortney (R-Ada) are ex-officio members of all Senate committees, and it took their support to pass SB 1647. With the vote tied 7-7, McCortney suddenly appeared in the back of the room and broke the tie after having watched the extensive bill presentation from his office.

“I believe deeply in the rights of parents to be able to educate their kids in the way they see fit,” Treat (R-OKC) said during the committee meeting. “Government interference in the ability to homeschool is a hinderance that’s not necessary.”

Treat’s SB 1647 would provide parents access to an “empowerment account” containing the amount of money the state would pay for their student’s public education, which parents would be able to use for things like private school tuition or other educational expenses. To be eligible for the account, students could not enroll in a public school, but eligible students would not be required to enroll in any school or online program at all.

Democrats and some Republicans opposed the measure out of concern that it would remove resources from public schools, particularly in rural areas where school choices are limited. Votes against the bill came from Sen. J.J. Dossett (D-Owasso), Sen. Jo Anna Dossett (D-Tulsa), Sen. Carri Hicks (D-OKC), Sen. Tom Dugger (R-Stillwater), Sen. Brenda Stanley (R-Midwest City), Sen. Blake Stephens (R-Tahlequah) and Committee Vice Chairman Dewayne Pemberton (R-Muskogee).

“Obviously, I’m not for SB 1647 because I don’t believe that public taxpayer dollars should be used for private schools,” Pemberton said after Tuesday’s meeting. “Never have. Taxpayers have never agreed to using their public school dollars for private schools.”

J.J. Dossett questioned whether students eligible for the program include the approximately 40,000 home-school or private school students in the state. He also questioned the potential for public funds to be misspent.

“This evidence would be turned into the Attorney General for investigation,” Dossett said during the meeting. “In the current situation, we have $68 million off the grid that was misspent on education expenses.”

Epic Charter Schools came under investigation more than eight years ago owing to alleged mismanagement of public funds by the charter school’s educational management organization, Epic Youth Services. Owned by Epic co-founders David Chaney and Ben Harris, EYS was receiving $0.10 of every public dollar paid to the charter schools in order to manage the controversial learning fund.

Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor recently approved Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater’s request to reclaim the criminal investigation into the charter schools. Prater had removed himself from the inquiry about two years ago.

Treat said that, under his bill, the state treasurer manage the accounts and would have the authority to conduct random audits of 10 percent of Oklahoma Empowerment Accounts. on an annual basis. He said the Attorney General’s Office would be charged with prosecuting any misuse of taxpayer money.

“Do you trust the attorney general to track down education expenses that are misspent on purpose?” Dossett asked Treat.

While clarifying that he does not know him well, Treat said he considers O’Connor to be “a man of great character and honor” who “will do the right thing.”

“If the voters think the attorney general is turning a blind eye to abuse, they have the chance at the ballot box to remove that attorney general and to elect one that they think will do so” Treat said.

Treat pitches ‘the ultimate accountability’

Jo Anna Dossett questioned whether the bill’s provisions include enough accountability requirements for qualified educational service providers.

“This doesn’t provide very strict or tight standards for the quality of services that our students would be receiving via public dollars,” Dossett said. “An organization that provides educational goods and services is a pretty loose definition.”

Treat said parents would play an important role in oversight of service providers

“The ultimate accountability for anything is you moving your dollars away,” Treat said. “Parents will keep these educational institutions more honest than any government intervention could. I believe it’s the ultimate in accountability. If you’re providing a service that meets the needs of that student, the parent will continue to utilize your service. If you’re underperforming, not meeting expectations or are doing something parents find egregious, they can move those dollars elsewhere.”

Hicks and Jo Anna Dossett also questioned whether educational service providers receiving payments will be trained and held to standards for reporting suspected physical or sexual abuse.

“It’s abysmal. Abuse and neglect has no place in Oklahoma. We’re way over the national average,” Treat said. “That happens with kids within the public school system. That happens to kids that may be in private or home-school situations, but it’s not more prevalent for one or the other. Every Oklahoman is a mandatory reporter. If you’re in the classroom and you’re a plumber or an electrician or professor and you know of or suspect abuse in Oklahoma, you’re obligated to report that abuse.”

‘We’ve lumped in parents as a private entity’

Senate Education Committee Chairman Sen. Adam Pugh (R-Edmond) said he struggled with his decision to support SB 1647, but he debated in its favor and encouraged legislators to approve it, if only to continue conversation surrounding the bill.

“We’ve talked a lot about public dollars for public services but, for some reason, we only limit that discussion to this particular bill,” Pugh said. “There are thousands of private contract vendors that the State Department of Education and school districts across the state partner with. Tens of millions of dollars, if not hundreds of millions of dollars, flow out of the state coffers every year to private entities. But, now we’ve lumped in parents as a private entity and, really, we’ve singled them out.”

Pugh pointed to Western Heights Public Schools as an example of a district with students who could benefit from the bill, which he said could help families get out of a system that just doesn’t work for them.

“We failed those kids, ladies and gentlemen. We failed them.,” Pugh said. “We can pass a bill this year, but the chances are we’ve lost a generation of those kids.”

Two other bills authored by Treat, SB 1592 and SB 1583, were also advanced during Tuesday’s Senate Eduction Committee meeting. SB 1592 would provide teachers in the state with up to $1 million in liability coverage to protect themselves from what Treat calls “frivolous” lawsuits.

The bill was approved by a vote of 11-3. Hicks, J.J Dossett and Jo Anna Dossett cast votes against the measure.

“There are suits that are sometimes filed against teachers that have no merit whatsoever,” Treat said. “That’s what I mean by ‘frivolous’ lawsuit.”

Hicks asked what Treat considers to be a frivolous lawsuit.

“Anecdotally, a teacher in my district that had a student who lashed out at her and the teacher defended herself, but didn’t lay any hands on the student, she is now being sued,” Treat said.

SB 1583, which Treat called a backup for SB 1647, would allow the parents or legal guardians of a student attending a school that received an “F” rating on the Oklahoma School Report Cards to request a transfer allowance to attend private school. The bill was advanced with a 9-6 vote.

Pemberton also voted against that Treat bill.

“Failing schools down in southeast Oklahoma like Broken Bow, there’s no private schools down there. It doesn’t accomplish anything,” Pemberton told NonDoc. “The reason we had SB 783 (last year) was so kids from failing schools could transfer to neighboring school districts. That’s what we supposedly fixed last year, and now all of a sudden they’re acting like it’s not there.”

Charter reform bills advance in House

education management organization, charter school reform
Rep. Sheila Dills (R-Tulsa) listens during a committee meeting Wednesday, April 3, 2019. (Michael Duncan)

Meanwhile in Tuesday’s meeting of the House Common Education Committee, Rep. Sheila Dills (R-Tulsa) advanced three of her bills focused on charter school governance and oversight. After the meeting, Dills said she has been working on transparency and accountability for charter schools since she was elected to the Legislature in 2018. In particular, Dills has been critical of for-profit educational management organizations, such as Epic Youth Services. (After a regime change, Epic Charter Schools no longer use a private management company.)

“Charter schools, both brick-and-mortar and virtual, have a role in our public school offerings to expand choice and meet the individual needs of students and their parents,” Dills said in a press release. “Unfortunately, however, we’ve had instances of outright fraud or abuse of taxpayer dollars when it comes to organizations that manage the administrative functions of these schools. These bills seek to tighten our laws, protecting public funds and increasing transparency over how they are expended. We also have a duty to ensure our students are receiving the public education promised them in our state constitution.”

HB 3643 would update requirements for the governing boards of virtual charter schools that contract with educational management organizations to create greater transparency for state funds. The measure would require charter school boards to meet at least one time per month, require the presence of a parent or guardian of a student on the board and stipulate that board members cannot be appointed by anyone affiliated with an educational management organization.

“This fall, I brought the charter schools, the charter school sponsors and the some of the educational management organizations together for talks and negotiations on how we can compromise and do something in the best interest of students and taxpayers,” Dills told NonDoc on Tuesday. “I really am proud of the product we’ve put together as far as legislation. Everybody’s on board. I don’t know anyone that is opposing the bills I passed today.” 

HB 3644 would update oversight requirements for charter school sponsors and governing boards. HB 3645, which Dills said was a request bill by the alternative education school Insight Virtual Charter School, would update attendance policies for virtual charter schools.

“That bill was really an unintended consequence of HB 2905 that I ran in 2020. We tightened up the transfer law, but in doing so it really restricted alternative ed students,” Dills said. “They’re a highly mobile population. They have a lot of needs and circumstances that a lot of kids don’t have, so they need some flexibilities. [Insight Academy] asked if they could request a waiver of the transfer law and they would request that to a regional accreditation officer in the [Oklahoma State Department of Education], and that RAO would then review and approve or disapprove that waiver.”

At the end of the 2021 legislative session, Dills authored a charter school reform omnibus bill that received approval in the House but did not get heard in the Senate.

Dills said she has been happy with how the House has responded to the investigative audit of Epic, but she said members of the Senate, for whatever reason, have not been as interested in the issue.

“After the auditor came out with her findings, our education chairman coordinated some hearings for the education committees and anyone else,” Dills said. “Sen. (Zack) Taylor and Sen. Pemberton are carrying my legislation in the Senate, and they’ll be great advocates and supporters of it. I truly do hope that, as much as we’ve gone through and discovered, that the Senate will be eager to move the legislation through.”

Election-related measures fail

While Dills moved three of our measures out of committee Tuesday, three bills authored by Rep. Denise Crosswhite-Hader (R-Piedmont) — HB 3233, HB 3234 and HB 3235 — failed to receive approval.

HB 3223 would have required all election candidates to declare a political party affiliation. Currently, municipal and school board elections are non-partisan.

HB 3234 would have required local elections not held concurrently with the statewide election calendar to reach a voter participation rate of 40 percent in order to be valid.

HB 3235, which would ban school boards from appointing an individual to fill a vacant board seat, did not receive a second motion in the committee meeting.