On March 31, Governor Kevin Stitt signed House Bill 2078, which fundamentally altered the way education funding is allotted by the state. The key to the bill is shifting the methodology for counting students currently enrolled in schools. Before the bill, students from the two years preceding the current year were counted for total enrolment. Now, only the previous year’s students will be counted.
This funding system change boils down to a predictable result: less funding for public school districts. Schools that were already losing students — generally ones in large urban areas or rural districts — will experience a sharp decline in funding. An urban district like Oklahoma City Public Schools estimates at least $8 million in cuts. Enrollment had particularly declined due to the ongoing pandemic, which saw an immense flight of students from public schools to online charters.
In contrast to many of the bills proposed in the legislature, HB 2078 made its way through the legislative process at breakneck speed. It passed through the Senate and was on the Governor’s desk on the same day. This is not to say the bill was unanimously approved; eight out of nine Democrats and 11 of 38 Republicans voted against the bill, creating a somewhat slim margin of passing at 27-19. It’s yet another measure that sped through the process with little to no public input. Almost all of the scant input that was offered from Oklahoma public educators was against the changes. This doesn’t matter, of course. They had the votes so they passed it as quickly as possible.
The bill is clearly yet another victory for charter schools at the expense of public schools. Charter schools have seen a massive spike in enrollment during the pandemic, and this bill will give more weight to this recent spike when calculating funding. Epic Charter Schools specifically will be the single largest beneficiary in terms of total funding gained from the new changes.
This funding reallocation comes after the abrupt end of a four-year court case over the sharing of funds between public and charter schools. In a 4-3 vote, the ruling declared charter schools are deserving of equal funding to public schools. The legality of the ruling has already been challenged by Oklahoma City Public Schools, citing Constitutional concerns. If it stands, the ruling would open up various local funds to the ready hands of charter schools.
All of this may sound benign without the context of how charter schools differ fundamentally from typical public schools. The key difference is their ultimate motive: profit, not education. Epic Charter Schools specifically was caught a few years ago engaging in various measures to control test scores and attendance numbers in order to make their schools appear more effective than in actuality. If the final numbers on paper go up; the profits go up. The actual educational outcomes are irrelevant.
Ironically, the method Epic Charter Schools used to profit so heavily was by enrolling “ghost students”, the exact phenomenon Governor Stitt claimed the new funding change was combatting. Essentially, students who switched from public schools to Epic were given a “learning fund” of at least $800. This caused a boost in enrollment, which in turn boosted the funding of Epic. However, these new enrollees often had no intention of actually partaking in Epic’s education system, making them true “ghost students”. Epic was actually ordered to repay the state $11.2 million for this practice, though they have repeatedly delayed the payment.
The push for “school choice” by the right-wing, otherwise known as school privatization, is in clear conflict with the basic purpose of education. Republicans like Governor Stitt know this and don’t care; education is not a priority of his. Part of what fuels the political push for charter schools is campaign funding, plain and simple. David Chaney, one of Epic’s co-founders, has sent over $5,000 to Stephanie Bice, a Republican Representative. Both Chaney and Epic’s other founder, Ben Harris, gave $2000 to Senator Inhofe. Together with their spouses, the co-founders spent over $180,000 on the 2018 elections. No one in this racket really cares about freedom or “school choice.”