Will Oregon’s Virtual Charter Schools Survive?

Will Oregon’s Virtual Charter Schools Survive?
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By Christina Martin

For more than a year, virtual (online) charter schools have been on the defensive against threats of crippling regulations. Last year, the Oregon Education Association (the state’s largest teachers union), proposed its “top-priority” bill (Senate Bill 767) that would have effectively shut down these innovative schools if it had been fully adopted. The Oregon Legislature responded by putting significant restrictions on the schools and capping student enrollment through 2011. The resulting bills also guarantee that the schools’ futures will remain uncertain for at least another year.

The OEA has proposed ending the virtual charter option entirely for most students and instead making Oregon’s school districts responsible for the creation, purchase and distribution of virtual curriculum. In a recent submission to the State Board of Education, the Oregon Education Association requested the following:

  • End all online education for elementary students, except those attending alternative schools (which in Oregon are generally only for at-risk students).
  • End all virtual charter schools, requiring that they become alternative schools if they want to continue to serve Oregon students.
  • Make existing districts the creators and providers of online content, managed by a consortium called The Oregon Option. Individual districts would be able to purchase courses from the consortium (which would be run by the Oregon Virtual School District).
  • Limit students’ access to only those virtual classes that their home districts decide are “suitable” for them, regardless of parents’ preferences.

The OEA wants to regulate virtual education to death, replacing parental choice with bureaucratic power and private innovation with top-heavy government mandates. What did virtual schools, which claim less than 1% of Oregon’s student population, do to deserve this attack from the OEA?

According to OEA testimony from 2009, online charter schools in Oregon are “financially objectionable” because they siphon money from traditional public schools and because private corporations, which provide curriculum to the virtual charter schools, can profit from their business. The OEA also claims that virtual schools lack “budget transparency and accountability to the public,” with “[d]isappointing student achievement outcomes.”

None of these claims can stand under scrutiny. On average, traditional public schools spend about $10,000 per student in Oregon. When a student leaves a district, around $5,700 in state funding follows the student to the new district (charter schools operate on about 80-95% of that amount), but other funding remains in the home district. As a result, student transfers actually could increase the average district spending per student (though overall the budget may shrink).

Virtual charter schools are performing well despite costing half the price of regular public schools. For example, the state’s biggest and oldest virtual charter school, five-year-old Oregon Connections Academy, is performing better than the statewide average on state assessments. Parents across the state back up these statistics with powerful stories of how children who struggled in a traditional school now thrive in virtual charters.

Will Oregon’s Virtual Charter Schools Survive?

These parents do not care if private corporations benefit from their children’s newfound educational success, despite OEA criticism of online curriculum providers’ profits. Similarly, the teachers union isn’t complaining about textbook corporations’ profits.

While the primary concern of a corporation may be its shareholders, a corporation can please its shareholders only by satisfying its customers. The private vendors who provide content for Oregon’s virtual schools must answer to the parents. If parents feel their children are getting an inadequate education, then they can choose from other online charters, brick-and-mortar public schools or private schools, all of which compete for student enrollment.

In contrast, traditional public schools more often have a captive student body who may lack the resources to enroll elsewhere. School administrators do not need to please parents; they need to please bureaucrats. Traditional school bureaucracy answers to voters (most of whom do not have children in K-12), special interests, campaign donors, government mandates and politicians who hold the purse strings. Individual parents’ concerns are often drowned out in an increasingly politicized public education system.

So if cost and quality are not problems, why has the OEA made crippling virtual charter schools its top priority? Because virtual charter schools are successful and innovative, and they will grow if the enrollment cap is raised. That threatens union power since charter school teachers and staff do not typically have to join unions (unlike traditional public school employees). After existing in Oregon for only five years, virtual schools enroll about 4,100 students. If they all were in ordinary public schools, at the average student-teacher ratio (about 20 to 1), then Oregon would have another 205 teachers who are required to pay hundreds of dollars annually in union dues. (That doesn’t include the dues of other would-be unionized support staff.)

Accordingly, it should be little surprise that the union considers regulating online charter schools to be among its top priorities. But why has the legislature played along? Why not call your state legislators and ask them?

Christina Martin is a policy analyst for the School Choice Project at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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