Virtual Charter Schools Serving More Oklahoma Students
TULSA, Oklahoma - Higher teacher pay is one reason EPIC Charter Schools says they have thousands of more applicants - than open teaching positions. The online school says they're offering families an education alternative in Tulsa and Oklahoma counties.
Kassandra, Christian and Clayton Williams used to attend a brick-and-mortar school - but now their family is choosing blended virtual learning through EPIC Charter.
"In the middle of my 7th grade year, whenever I was in still in public school. And we pulled out almost immediately due to heavy bullying," said student Clayton Williams.
"I felt like a failure as a parent," said Trish Kaler. "I couldn't meet his needs."
Now their mother, Trish, supervises them. They all take online courses, and they have a teacher who's a phone call away.
EPIC pays their virtual teachers a base pay with bonuses that together can average about $63,000.
"Merit pay is what you're referring to - is resonating throughout the state of Oklahoma. Currently we have over 5,000 Oklahoma certified teachers that have applied," said Bart Banfield, assistant superintendent of instruction for EPIC Charter Schools.
Union Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Kirt Hartzler believes a reason virtual charters can pay teachers more - is that they don't have to spend their state aid on high operating costs.
"We're responsible for transporting students; we're responsible for feeding them; we're responsible for providing the adequate supervision and the security that's needed," he said.
"We have buildings that we have to heat and cool."
So why do virtual charter schools? Well, that's what a study asked hundreds of Oklahoma families. And the number one reason: bullying.
The study, commissioned by the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board, cited overcrowding, limited resources and problems with staff as other top reasons for switching.
And more families are choosing virtual charters. Since 2014, state statistics show enrollment has more than doubled. EPIC believes they'll top 40,000 students within five years.
Union has their own virtual academy, so it's clear - virtual is not just a trend.
"It's not going to go away. If you think about our students, they're the digital natives," Hartzler said.
"I feel super successful only because my kids are now successful," said Trish Kaler, whose three kids attend a virtual school.
"And I was able to find a new social group and a new group of people that accepted me for me," Clayton said.
There are three other virtual schools operating in Oklahoma: Insight School of Oklahoma, Oklahoma Connections Academy and Oklahoma Virtual Charter Academy.