Around 50 Sapulpa Public School district parents, school board members, teachers, principals, administrators, and city officials (such as Mayor Pro Tem Lou Martin) gathered at the Washington Administration Building on the evening of Thursday, February 27 for the inaugural Sapulpa Parent Legislative Action Committee (PLAC) forum with local legislators.
Legislators in attendance were Senator James Leewright and State Representatives Mark Lawson and Kyle Hilbert. Sapulpa PLAC co-chairpersons present were Tammy Miles-Hoggat and Misty Jones.
Sapulpa PLAC “is a grassroots organization…a nonpartisan group comprised of passionate volunteer advocates” who intend “to inform and engage parents and the community in advocating for a strong, equitable public education system for ALL children.” (emphasis theirs.)
Miles-Hoggat and Jones attended PLAC meetings in Jenks and Bixby and an OKPLAC meeting last summer in an endeavor to understand its mission and what benefits the organization could have for SPS parents.
The legislators were enthusiastic about having an opportunity to engage with the community in an open and accessible setting and to give updates on current, relevant legislation being authored at the capitol.
Current bills in the State House include HB2905 by Republican Sheila Dills from Tulsa (Bixby, Jenks, and Tulsa school districts) and HB3460 by Republican Tammy West from Oklahoma City and Republican Brenda Stanley from Midwest City.
A large part of the evening’s discussion related to virtual charter schools in general and Epic Charter Schools and Dove Public Charter Schools specifically. Attendees asked about current investigations into ECS by the OSBI, FBI, and Oklahoma State Department of Education, and the current forensic audit being performed on its finances by state auditor Cindy Byrd.
Superintendent Rob Armstrong asked, “If the results of the audit are dramatically negative, is there anything available for the legislature to do now?”
Lawson said yes, and that though legislators will not “legislate punitively” on allegations, they will act swiftly if shown conclusive evidence of wrongdoing.
He also stated that HB2905, called the “Virtual Charter School Reform and Transparency Act of 2020,” addresses some of these concerns, including truancy, transfers, and withdraws. The bill also increases the amount of schoolwork a virtual student must complete each quarter to meet attendance requirements. This measure is not anticipated to cost the state any extra money.
Hilbert further stressed that punishing all virtual programs could have a negative impact on brick-and-mortar public school districts who have virtual components, like SPS.
Another complaint from members of the audience about a virtual charter school, Dove Public Charter Schools, involved the Oklahoma State Department of Education’s lawsuit against the school regarding its use of private information to attempt to recruit middle-school-age children to enroll there.
Several teachers in attendance also received recruitment communications from Epic a few years ago. This is alarming due to the sensitive nature of their and their students’ confidential information and how these districts intend to use, store, and protect it.
HB3460 addresses this issue by allowing schools to designate specific student details as confidential directory information. Anyone other than the primary custodian of this documentation would be unable to release or sell it without written consent of the local school board.
The State Senate is working on SB407 which would modify provisions of the Oklahoma Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship Act and SB1115 which would allow the State Board of Education to renew an emergency or provisional teacher certificate.
Regarding SB1115, Armstrong said that “it is critical we have that option” since so many teachers currently working at SPS have an emergency teacher certificate, and that “we will only have [substitute teachers]” if this does not pass.
He further stated, frankly, that “we created this deficit in teachers and it will take years to get out of it.” The bill was approved by the Senate education committee and will next move on to the full Senate for a vote.
Superintendent Armstrong has stated in the past that the administration and district know that families want choices and that sometimes a virtual option is the better choice for their child. That is why SPS is expanding its virtual options and have had a few “virtual” days this school year, where students who were not required to be on campus that day were able to check in remotely through their Chromebooks.
(It is also important to note that not all virtual charter schools are under criminal investigation or have had negative allegations made against them.)
The heart of the issue is that if the state continues to fund virtual-only schools the way it does brick-and-mortar schools (who have a multitude of additional expenses and costly government-mandated requirements), it will be the end of public schools as we have known them.
Considering the fruitful exchange at the PLAC meeting, it appears the legislators can see the inequity and will continue to take steps to correct it.
Attendees concerned about the future of public education, especially in the SPS district, were encouraged to send a card, letter, or email with a personal story about the importance of public education to Governor Stitt, Lieutenant Governor Pinnell, or to one of their legislators.
Miles-Hoggat and Jones will be establishing the Sapulpa PLAC committee soon and creating a schedule for its regular meetings. Sapulpa Times will notify readers as they are announced.
In the meantime, if you would like to get involved with the organization, please visit their Facebook page. You can also visit the Oklahoma PLAC website at www.okplac.org for more information or email the committee chairs directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(No one from Epic Charter Schools was interviewed for this article.)