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Report finds Epic's 2020 growth accounted for more than 10 percent of charter enrollment explosion nationally

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Quinton Chandler / StateImpact Oklahoma
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As traditional public school enrollment plummeted across the nation, charter schools grew by roughly 240,000 students, according to a study released by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Roughly 13 percent of that total growth happened at one virtual charter school in Oklahoma: Epic Charter Schools. Oklahoma’s virtual charter behemoth saw explosive growth last year, peaking at almost 60,000 students. The school had fewer than 30,000 before the pandemic began.

Enrollment has since come back down to earth at more than 40,000 students.

“The shift to distance learning happened slowly and then all at once,” EPIC Assistant Superintendent Shelly Hickman said in a news release earlier this year. “EPIC has had 10 years to sharpen best practices for virtual learning, which include giving our parents a lot of choices and supporting our faculty through competitive compensation and low class sizes.”

Epic has been in the headlines for a criminal embezzlement investigation, audit of its finances and major restructuring. But students and their families flocked there anyway to take advantage of a learning fund that gives students up to $1,000 for educational expenses.

The school has severed ties with its controversial founders Ben Harris and David Chaney. But The Oklahoman reported over the weekend that the founders and their for-profit company have yet to repay millions of dollars in the learning fund to the school.

But none of that has seemed to matter to actual families, said Sam Duell, charter school policy director with ExcelinEd, a non-profit education advocacy group. Instead, they just wanted to go with a school that had experience.

“We had ready-made options for when the pandemic hit,” Duell said. “I have heard people say that they wanted to attend a virtual charter because they were the pros and they kind of knew how to do it, and many school districts were kind of building the plane as they flew it.”

It’s difficult to know the exact reasons, so many families went there, though. They likely wanted to have more control over where their child went to school than they might get in their traditional district.

“We know that Epic allows parents to choose their curriculum, and we know that Epic allows parents to direct education dollars to third party service providers,” Deull said. “So it's possible that parents were looking for more control, and that's what Epic was offering.”

Robby Korth joined StateImpact Oklahoma in October 2019, focusing on education reporting.
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