OKLAHOMA CITY — With all four of the state’s virtual charter schools reporting low graduation rates, Oklahoma lawmakers said Thursday that they’ll have to look more closely into how the statewide schools function.

State Sen. Gary Stanislawski, R-Tulsa, said legislators may need to consider allowing the four online statewide charter schools — Epic Charter Schools, Insight School of Oklahoma, Oklahoma Connections Academy and Oklahoma Virtual Charter Academy — to have more selective admission standards in an effort to boost student success.

Currently, the schools must admit any Oklahoma student — no matter how far behind they are in school or regardless of whether they’d actually thrive in a virtual classroom environment, he said.

“How can we make sure we’re meeting the needs of those students?” he asked.

The state’s four virtual charter schools, meanwhile, have seen their enrollment nearly triple in five years, said Rebecca Wilkinson, executive director of the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board.

In the 2017-18 school year, nearly 12,000 Oklahoma K-12 students enrolled in one of the four online schools. That’s up from just 4,700 in 2013.

These schools, which provide Oklahoma students tuition-free public schooling online, receive state aid and federal funds.

Stanislawski was among a panel of state lawmakers on Thursday who attended an interim study at the state Capitol to probe the virtual schools’ performance. They looked at everything from standardized testing results to graduation rates and attendance policies.

In the 2016-17 school year, the state’s largest virtual charter school — Epic — had a 36 percent graduation rate. Insight had a 30 percent graduation rate; Connections Academy, 44 percent; and the Virtual Charter Academy, 43 percent, said Sheryl Tatum, head of school for Virtual Charter Academy and Insight.

The statewide public school average graduation rate was 83 percent.

Tatum said the schools’ graduation rates don’t paint the entire picture. They’re calculated using a federally mandated equation.

A lot of students who are enrolling arrive “credit deficient,” move from school to school frequently or don’t thrive in prior schools, Tatum said.

“The older the student enrolls with us, the likelier they are to be credit deficient,” she said. “They’re trying this as their last chance before they drop out.”

Tatum said 74 percent of the non-graduating students didn’t start virtual charter school in the ninth grade.

Wilkinson said the majority of families reported choosing the schools to escape bullying, because of overcrowding or limited resources in traditional classrooms or due to problems with other schools.

But many students who enroll annually are not on track to graduate on time, and many count as dropouts even if they were enrolled for a short time or already behind in school, charter officials said.

Tatum recommended Oklahoma lawmakers adopt a different calculation that more accurately reflects whether students are advancing toward graduation.

Stanislawski said lawmakers need to dig deeper into comparing the four virtual school graduation rates with those of public school programs.

He said over 20 percent of public school districts also offer full-time virtual school programs to select students, but the interim study did not compare those graduation rates.

Under the law, school districts are allowed to select who they allow to enroll in their virtual classrooms so that they can ensure students will thrive in that type of academic environment. The four statewide schools must accept anyone who applies, he said.

“We need to be able to equalize that,” he said, adding that perhaps the statewide virtual schools should be allowed to have some sort of screening process.

Also, if virtual schools can’t reject students, they may not have enough resources to adequately meet demand if enrollment continues to grow, he said.

State Sen. Ron Sharp, R-Shawnee, said the virtual charter schools are statewide programs, so they’re set up to give everyone in the state an opportunity to enroll.

If those schools try to exclude certain students, they could face allegations of discrimination or other problems, he said.

Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhi.com.