Charter schools are controversial, as is the provision of publicly-funded online education options for K-12 students nationwide. In her outstanding book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” Diane Ravitch explains how the charter school movement has become (for SOME individuals) a rallying cry and political objective replacing the call for educational vouchers championed by various groups in the 1990s and early 2000s. The “school choice” movement in our country is NOT monolithic, and it’s generally NOT fair to paint ALL charter schools with a broad brush. The English WikiPedia article for “School Choice” as well as the article’s talk/discussion page reflects the widely divergent views which exist today around the world on these topics. Acknowledging this diversity of charter school types in the United States as well as differing opinions about the value of those schools, it’s fair to say IN GENERAL most public school districts have and continue to view charter schools as a THREAT to their existence. The basic reason is MONEY: K-12 school budgets are often perceived as zero sum, so money charter schools attract by enrolling students takes funds away from competing public schools. News this week in Oklahoma that a new, online charter school (whose founder I interviewed for a podcast back in June) had to file a lawsuit against the Oklahoma State Department of Education in order to “force the state to issue the essential school code for funding and student enrollment” provides a glimpse into MAJOR struggles taking place now within our state among differing factions seeking to shape the future of Oklahoma public education. These are interesting educational times, and definitely times in which we need to remain both informed as well as active politically.

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Educational dollars are limited everywhere, and in Oklahoma we’re no exception. As I travel to different parts of our nation sharing presentations about educational technology and twenty-first century learning, I encounter many similarities and differences in the challenges faced by educators and parents in schools. Controversy surrounding charter schools is a clear common denominator. The Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, PA, and Turning Point Learning Center in Emporia, KS, are both examples of innovative, publicly funded charter schools which are meeting diverse student needs in progressive, digitally supported ways many “traditional” public schools are not. These schools are passionately loved by many students, parents, as well as educators. That’s not the case for all charter schools, however. Here in Oklahoma, I have a friend who teaches in a publicly funded charter school which has been a NIGHTMARE in terms of curricular and administrative support. Some charter schools are doing a great job, while others are not. That’s also true for our public schools. It’s important to keep this in mind as we form and refine our own opinions about charter schools and their value in our society today. It is inaccurate and misleading to say, “All charter schools are a bad idea for U.S. public education.” Many charter schools meet student needs which traditional schools are NOT, and bring a disruptive element of change which is NEEDED in many communities to move educational reform efforts forward.

We hear the term “educational reform” bantered about frequently, but the agendas and perspectives of individuals using that phrase vary widely. Today I heard part of President Obama’s town hall question and answer session on TV, and heard him talk about “bottom-up, grassroots education reforms” he is observing in response to RTTT. While we definitely HAVE seen legal and political changes in many of our states in response to RTTT, including Oklahoma, I question whether these changes can be accurately characterized as “bottom-up, grassroots reforms.” Unfortunately, the misguided educational policies of the Bush administration are being perpetuated as well as extended under Obama. Despite the flaws in our current educational policies, some of the changes invited by RTTT dollars have constructive potential to positively change our educational systems. Charter school laws, laws governing student enrollment in those schools, and laws regarding online education are all areas which have seen recent change in Oklahoma. This week’s newspaper headlines about Epic One on One Charter School, the Oklahoma State Department of Education, the University of Central Oklahoma, and the decision of Oklahoma County District Judge Patricia G. Parrish have developed as a direct result of those RTTT-inspired legal changes, and the implications are very important.

In his book “Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns,” Clayton M. Christensen and his co-authors predict online education for K-12 students in the United States will soon reach a “tipping point” where it will fundamentally disrupt traditional schools and educational models. I am starting this post with these observations, because the fight we see taking place in Oklahoma public education today over publicly funded charter schools and online education options reflects many of these dynamics vividly. We NEED innovation and creative thinking in education, and my work with others in the Oklahoma Creativity Project reflects that desire. My hope is that as disruptive changes continue to challenge the educational status quo, we will continue to remind ourselves of the basic purposes of education to serve the needs of INDIVIDUAL children and families, as well as our society more generally. Do we need publicly funded charter schools today? Yes, absolutely! Is every idea for a charter school worth supporting, and is every charter school great? Absolutely not. This landscape is messy and muddy at times, but it’s good we see organizations as well as events focused on the promotion of creativity and differentiation of learning opportunities for students in Oklahoma. I’m glad to see leaders in our state acting to promote more online learning opportunities for students. Perhaps like you, however, I’m trying to discern what the respective agendas are for individuals as well as organizations seeking to promote or block these changes.

On June 25, 2010, I interviewed one of the founders of Epic 1 on 1 Charter School in Oklahoma (David Chaney) about the innovative and ground-breaking educational model his nonprofit organization received legal authority to pursue thanks to new legislation signed into law on June 5, 2010. I published our 50 minute interview as a podcast here on July 22. This week, the lead / headline article in the paper version of the Edmond Sun newspaper was, “Judge rules in favor of charter school.” NewsOK’s article from Tuesday, “Judge rules Oklahoma must fund charter school,” also provides additional background about the latest chapters in this struggle over charter schools and publicly funded online education in Oklahoma.

The mainstream media news articles linked above and a few others (here, here and here) highlighted several developments in this story of Epic 1 on 1 Charter School in Oklahoma and its disruptive model of online education. I’m sharing these reflections and analysis to both deepen my own understanding of the dynamics in this situation, as well as (hopefully) your own. If you can offer clarifications or want to share your own opinions, I’d welcome them as comments to this post.

1. Oklahoma Judge Patricia Parrish has ordered the SDE to fund Epic 1 on 1 Charter School
The first of two clear outcomes from this week’s ruling is that the Oklahoma State Department of Education cannot legally refuse to provide Epic 1 on 1 Charter School with a number required to receive state funding. The SDE’s position in the court case (according to NewsOK reporter Megan Rolland) was that the charter school’s sponsoring organization (The University of Central Oklahoma) could not independently authorize the charter for Epic, instead, Oklahoma State Superintendent Sandy “Garrett said the law clearly states that all of those entities must get approval of their governing board before they can charter a school — a step that Epic lacks.”

Judge Patricia Parrish disagreed, and Andrew Griffin (writing for Oklahoma.Watchdog.org) provided background yesterday for how UCO’s executive vice president, Steve Kreidler, independently and legally authorized the charter for Epic as an empowered representative of the university.

2. Epic will NOT be able to enroll students this fall
Despite the fact enabling legislation was signed into law by Oklahoma Governor Brad Henry in June, Epic 1 on 1 Charter school will NOT be able to provide online educational curriculum and services for the estimated 400 students who have enrolled in the charter school over the summer. Oklahoma Judge Patricia Parrish ruled this week the “enrollment period” for the school must adhere to the statewide “open transfer dates” which ended April 1st. The strange thing about this ruling is that, since enabling legislation was not signed into law until June 5th, there is no way Epic could have met this enrollment requirement for the 2010-2011 academic year. It is also strange since students and their families cannot geographically “move” within the boundaries of Epic Charter school to qualify for enrollment, as people can do with all other public school districts in our state. I’m sure the students, parents, educators, and Epic staff who have been counting on online educational learning experiences this school year through Epic are VERY saddened by this ruling. When I interviewed David Chaney in June, his impression was that students would be able to enroll in Epic from ANY location in the state of Oklahoma (not just in the Tulsa and Oklahoma City metro areas) at any time during the school year. This would be possible since the students could transfer under emergency transfer provisions of the law, and Epic would provide an online (and therefore geographically agnostic) learning experience. Judge Parrish this week annulled that analysis. It appears everyone wanting to start with online learning experiences through Epic will have to wait ANOTHER year, till the fall of 2011, to begin. By that time, the political landscape within Oklahoma will look different since State Superintendent Sandy Garrett is not seeking re-election after holding her office for 20 years. It’s impossible to say exactly what this “changed political landscape” will look like, but it’s likely (especially if Republican candidate Janet Barresi, an outspoken advocate of Oklahoma charter schools, wins the election) that the political climate faced by Epic 1 on 1 Charter School in Oklahoma will be different.

3. Epic has won recognition as an independent school district
When I interviewed David Chaney in June, I understood Epic 1 on 1 was being organized as a charter school within Oklahoma City Public Schools. The ruling this week, however, apparently gives recognition to Epic as its own, independent district. This is a strange and weird-sounding development, since precedents for charter schools within Oklahoma and elsewhere (of which I’m aware) require that public charters affiliate with an existing public school district. The rationale for this is to provide accountability. Publicly elected officials sit on school boards to provide oversight for organizational decisions and operations. Epic does not have a publicly elected board, so it’s strange the judge’s decision this week apparently puts Epic outside OKCPS and on its own. It will be interesting to see if this decision stands the test of time.

Closing Thoughts
When I interviewed David Chaney of Epic 1 on 1 Charter School in June, I was amazed to hear him describe the innovative funding and online curriculum model his nonprofit organization has developed for Oklahoma students. Before changes in Oklahoma state law this past June, ONLY students living in the Tulsa and Oklahoma City metro-areas had been eligible to enroll in publicly-funded charter schools. A long running lawsuit involving Tulsa Public Schools (which eventually failed) was (in the words of attorneys for the Oklahoma Charter School Association) “an attempt by TPS to ‘kill charter schools.'” It’s fair to say a large number of Oklahomans active in educational politics oppose ALL charter schools, and to date have kept charter schools OUT of every part of our state except the Tulsa and Oklahoma City areas. The new educational legislation signed in June 2010 appeared poised to change that, and open “a virtual door” of school enrollment for Oklahoma students all over our state.These legal developments this week, however, appear to have put that prospect on hold.

Do we need more publicly-funded educational choices for our Oklahoma students and families? Yes, absolutely. Do we, as a state, need to move aggressively forward in embracing online education for students THROUGHOUT our state? Yes, absolutely. I’ve only heard one story to date of students enrolled in a public Oklahoma school taking Mandarin Chinese last year. The option for students to take a DIVERSE array of courses and have varied learning experiences thanks to the differentiation provided by online learning opportunities should become COMMON rather than remaining rare for our Oklahoma students. We MUST find ways to make project-based learning, digital literacy, and twenty-first century skills a TOP PRIORITY for all the learners in our state, including those in our publicly funded school districts. This is not going to happen without disruption.

I’m curious to know more of the backstory about this Epic 1 on 1 Charter School situation, and I hope to reach out to several individuals as well as groups I know in the weeks ahead to seek more information. As Clayton Christensen and Michael Horn accurately predicted, the fight is on to change the face of K-12 education in the United States through online learning. Whatever the outcome for Epic 1 to 1 Charter School in Oklahoma, you can bet we’re going to be hearing a LOT more about online education and the opportunities it can afford our students as well as our society in the months ahead.

Michael Horn and Wesley Fryer

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  • http://scottsfloyd.com Scott S. Floyd

    This is an interesting and growing topic. In TX, we already have an online school that is providing a public school education for kids from around the state for grades 3-10. What bothers me about this particular program is that it was from an outside vendor, franchised by a TX public school district using Texas education grant funds, offers none of its findings back through the state agency (like grants require), and now removes funding from any school district around the state of Texas.

    Do I like the program? From what I can see (which they do not let you see a lot, and they refuse to answer questions directed to them), it looks like a great idea and arrangement for families. Do I think it should be allowed to take kids from other school districts around the state? I do have an issue with this because it allows them to basically pull in the better kids from school districts to artificially inflate the testing data for the weak large metro school district that gets credit for “owning” the online charter school leaving the struggling students in the local classes with even less financial resources to provide the costlier services. It will be far too easy for them to write off the struggling kids as “not being the right profile for an online setting” and then giving them the boot. We cannot do that in the F2F setting, so I’m not sure why they should be able to do it in their setting.

    Needless to say, this is a hot topic that will only become more of a headline topic.

    Since they are just now doing some in your face advertising in the larger metro areas, I expect it will become a topic during our next legislative session in January. Otherwise, the superintendents who prefer to ignore this particular happening will end up paying the price in so many different ways in the next three years or so.

    What will I do about it? Well, I plan to monitor it all, attempt to get more questions answered as to how they were the only entity to get the grant funds to franchise this program, how they are legally able to take kids across school boundaries while forcing the local ISD to provide services and testing settings, and how the state education agency plans to level the playing field financially to allow interested districts to do the same thing they have allowed and funded with this one.

  • MWCOK

    It is ridiculous to think that an online curriculum is appropriate for K-5 children. They just don’t learn that way, and they can’t sit in front of a computer for the six hours required for “virtual” school to count as a real, academic education.

    You better check your facts about the students who learn Chinese in Oklahoma. There are MANY districts that offer the language: Jenks, Tulsa, Ponca City, Putnam City all do, and that’s just off the top of my head.

  • http://www.wesfryer.com Wesley Fryer

    When K-5 children use an online curriculum appropriately, they are not being locked in a room with a computer by an adult who says: “I’ll be back in 8 hours to check on you. Good luck.” The online elementary curriculum programs with which I’m familiar involve parents as teachers in home school settings. From what I understand, online programs like Epic 1 on 1 involve close work between the student, their parent, and an assigned teacher who checks up on progress and provides instructional guidance as needed. I agree with the idea that online curriculum for independent learning is best geared for secondary students, rather than primary students. There is still a valid place for online curriculum for primary age students, however, which very much can “count as a real, academic education.” High quality curriculum at any level involves more than just sitting at the screen and staring at it. Like our face to face schools, we have a wide diversity of online curriculum options for K-12 students – Some designed poorly, others very well designed and supported.

    In terms of Oklahoma students studying Chinese, I’m delighted to hear Jenks, Tulsa, Ponca City, and Putnam City all offer it currently. Thanks so much for sharing this. I wonder if there is place online where that sort of statistic is reported? Maybe the State Department of Education tracks this? I’ll do some investigating to find out.

    Thanks so much for your sharing your views and input.

  • http://headinthecloudsfeetontheground.com Denise Herrenbruck

    Wes — The same thing is going on in Oregon in regard to virtual charter schools, but I think the issue is being framed incorrectly. Scott made an important point that publicly funded virtual charter schools are sometimes operated using an “outside vendor, franchised by a … public school district.” In Oregon’s case the disputed virtual charter schools are run by a for-profit private national company. The “cap” being imposed on virtual charter school enrollment by the state legislature does not reflect a position on innovation or online learning per se; the issue is EQUITY in public education, and the responsibility of gov’t to oversee spending of public dollars for education. When public dollars fund educational options provided by private, for profit companies, there a few big risks. The first is that opportunities are extended to only some of the populace, such as wealthier kids with plentiful access to technology and parental involvement in the home. A second risk is that pedagogy can be compromised by the for-profit motive. When the teachers in virtual schools are paid $12-$18 per hour, how likely is it that they skilled in designing interactive, collaborative, project-based online learning experiences in response to the specific needs of their learners? More likely the version of online learning is limited to teachers monitoring the completion of packaged curricula.

    The sustainable solution to this problem is not a legislative “cap” on enrollment in virtual charter schools that are franchises of private corporations. It is public schools that are able to offer a full range of hybrid and fully online choices for all public school students. This should be our message. I think the issue gets confused when we enter into a debate about the value of online instruction or charter schools or innovation or teachers unions, etc.

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