COVID-19 is limiting classroom access; it’s time to stop limiting Oregon’s online charter school enrollment
By Cooper Conway
The Oregon Education Association (OEA) recently penned a letter to legislators urging them to maintain a strict limit on the number of children who may transfer to online charter schools. A 2011 Oregon law caps the number of students allowed to transfer to an online charter school at 3 percent of local district enrollment. The union argues that the cap was generous because only 1 percent of students were actively looking to switch at the time the cap was set.
However, that was 2011. We are now living in 2020, during a worldwide pandemic in which learning in person is impossible for most children.
Parents of more than 300 Oregon students recognized this new reality and completed paperwork to transfer their children to an online charter school soon after Governor Kate Brown suspended in-person classes on March 16. In addition to those 300 students, thousands more looked to transfer to one of Oregon’s 22 online learning programs after the shutdown of brick-and-mortar schools. Instead of receiving a quality education in a setting that embodies social distancing, Oregon’s Department of Education stepped in on behalf of teachers’ unions and denied the transfers of any more students looking to continue full-time learning.
Nevertheless, the OEA claims raising the cap by as little as one-half of one percent would be too much. The union argues the state’s Department of Education and local Education Service Districts are currently working to provide a better, hybrid program for students during COVID-19. In contrast, nearly two dozen online charter schools have had distance learning curricula in place for years.
Encouraging the switch to charter schools is more bang for the Oregon taxpayer’s buck, too. Charter schools historically operate with 80 to 95% of what public schools receive from the state school fund. The money saved by districts from the transfer of students to charter schools could help their budgets across the state—all while empowering students to get an education in the setting of their choice.
The union’s forceful defense of the 3% cap raises a key question: Why is there a cap at all? Such an arbitrarily low cap forces charters to rely on admission lotteries, turning education into a game of chance. In no other setting in America does this happen. For example, 41 million Americans have applied for unemployment since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. The government is not allowed to put a 3% cap on the number of citizens claiming unemployment, so why is the Oregon state government allowed to take away students’ choice to attend an online charter school?
The government school bureaucracy can’t parent a child better than the child’s parents do. Parents should choose where their children attend school—not politicians, not bureaucrats, and certainly not a union.
Moving forward, Oregon legislators not only should raise the charter school enrollment cap, but they should get rid of it entirely. A child’s education is not something that should be politicized.
Cooper Conway is a Research Associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.
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By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.
The Oregon Education Association is organizing a statewide walk-out May 8 related to what it says is inadequate school funding. What they’re really demanding is a $2 billion tax increase.
Districts across the state, including Portland, Beaverton, North Clackamas, Gladstone, and Eugene have canceled classes for the day, forcing working parents to stay home or line up day care for the strike. The teachers surely have their chants and songs already scripted for their rallies. But, there’s one slogan the teachers won’t be shouting. That’s: “Fix PERS Now!”
District administrators appear to be in support of the Oregon Education Association’s unauthorized strike. West Linn-Wilsonville superintendent Kathy Ludwig said, “OEA’s purpose with this rally is to send the message to all Oregonians that public school funding has been insufficient for decades and needs to be addressed.” A written statement made to the Portland teachers’ union by superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero reads: “Our educators and students deserve better. It is long overdue that we prioritize schools in Oregon.”
The claim that Oregon hasn’t prioritized public education is simply wrong. Portland Public Schools voters have approved nearly $1.3 billion in construction bonds since 2012. In 2011 and 2014, voters approved and renewed a local option property tax increase for Portland schools. Another renewal of the $95 million tax is expected to be on the ballot this year.
In Oregon, total expenditures per student were $13,037 in 2016, the most recent year for which information is available from the U.S. Census Bureau. Oregon is exactly in the middle of the state rankings of per student total expenditures. Six states, including Oregon, Washington, and California, have per student spending that is within five percent of the national average. Total expenditures include salaries, employee benefits such as health insurance and PERS, supplies, and debt service, among other things.
According to the state’s Legislative Revenue Office, annual state and local education spending in Oregon has increased by about $1.7 billion over the past ten years. This amounts to $2,350 in increased spending per student and has greatly outpaced the rate of inflation.
Despite a booming economy with increased tax revenues and funding for schools, many districts claim they are facing a funding gap. Beaverton expects to cut more than 200 teachers. Portland plans to eliminate 45 classroom teaching positions and combine many fourth and fifth grade classrooms. These announcements raise the question: Why are districts cutting staff in the face of rising revenues?
PERS and other benefits are the biggest drivers of Oregon’s education finance problems. The cost of paying for public employee retirements has doubled over the past ten years. In 2009, school districts paid approximately 15 percent of payroll to fund PERS. The latest estimates indicate next year, districts will have to pay 30 percent of payroll. The increased cost of PERS alone in the next biennium would cause the average class size to increase by two to four students per classroom.
It gets worse. In reaction to earlier PERS crises, many school districts took on additional debt to reduce their PERS obligations. The interest payments on the bonds are taking money out of classrooms. Census data indicate Oregon schools pay almost $600 per student per year in interest payments alone, making it the fourth highest state in per student interest payments.
The OEA claims it’s seeking more spending to reduce class sizes and improve graduation rates. However, the Oregon Business Council calculates PERS will consume much of the $2 billion in tax increases under consideration by the legislature. Without meaningful PERS reforms, Oregonians will face decades of multi-billion-dollar tax increases every time the legislature meets.
The frustration of teachers is understandable. They are on the front lines of education. However, walking off the job is the wrong approach and sets a poor example for students. It punishes pupils, parents, and employers for our politicians’ failure to fix PERS. It also misses the mark strategically because the legislature doesn’t have any more money, and neither do put-upon taxpayers. Parents who are forced to stay home to watch their kids on May 8 should take them on a field trip to the OEA’s rallies with signs of their own, reading, “No New Taxes—Fix PERS Now!”
Eric Fruits, Ph.D. is Vice President of Research at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.
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