IMAGE: Ward Jenkins
Supporters of online charter schools flooded the Capitol on Monday in an effort to beat back a bill they say would shut down Oregon’s largest existing online charter school and make the development of similar programs impossible.
Ann-Marie Gurney was among dozens of parents who testified against Senate Bill 767 during a four-hour hearing June 15 before the House Revenue Committee. The committee approved the bill, sending it to the House for a floor vote expected later this week.
Gurney told WW that Oregon Connections Academy, the Scio-based online charter school that educated her son in second grade this year, is doing an excellent job.
But Gurney, who runs a home-based business in Northeast Portland, says she’s come to realize her son and other ORCA students are pawns in a much larger game over charter schools, which can employ non-union teachers and use fewer teachers than conventional public schools.
“This isn’t about education at all,” Gurney says. “It’s about politics.”
Now, online charter school supporters have used Oregon’s Public Records Law to show just how much politics are involved.
They obtained emails between a lobbyist for the state’s 47,000-member teachers union and an Oregon Department of Education staff attorney. Those emails, they say, show that the lawyer for the ostensibly neutral state agency tinkered with SB 767 to serve the union’s interests and contradicted written instructions from Oregon State Board of Education chairman Duncan Wyse.
In an April 2 email to ODE lawyer Cindy Hunt, Oregon Education Association lobbyist Laurie Wimmer asked Hunt to “fix” the language of SB 767. The bill would sharply limit online charter schools’ enrollment of students from different school districts and eliminate the Oregon State Board of Education’s ability to waive residency requirements.
“The bill’s effective date needs to be written two ways: one, to nullify a waiver if granted before this [SB 767] passes, and two, to make it applicable on upon renewal,” Wimmer wrote.
Hunt told WW she then shaped the final version of the bill per Wimmer’s request.
The tiny mid-Willamette Valley school district of Scio has long sought a waiver from the State Board (see “Rogue of the Week,” WW, March 18, 2009) of the requirement that 50 percent of an online charter school’s students live within its district.
ORCA serves more than 2,500 students, few of whom live in Scio. Without such a waiver, supporters say the school would fail.
Interest groups and lawmakers often circulate draft language to relevant state agencies and other parties for review of technical errors. But ORCA supporters say Hunt’s role went beyond merely reviewing the bill to outright advocacy for the OEA, a stalwart supporter of most Democratic lawmakers.
The charter’s backers also point to an April 16 letter that Wyse wrote to legislative leaders, saying, “The board unanimously requests that the Legislature not adopt legislation that would either remove the board’s authority to grant waivers or effectively close existing online charter schools.”
But that is exactly what the bill Hunt shaped for Wimmer and the OEA does.
The Senate sent the bill to the House after passing it June 10, just following federal Education Secretary Arne Duncan warned that states unfriendly to charter schools might get less stimulus money.
OEA spokeswoman Becca Uherbelau says the union has three concerns about online charter schools: that the public money flowing into them is not used transparently, that the quality of online education is uncertain, and that online education isn’t equally available to all students.
Morgan Allen, ODE’s lobbyist, says Hunt did nothing wrong either by “fixing” the teachers union’s bill or helping craft legislation contrary to the board’s wishes.
“Hunt has acted very appropriately,” Allen says. “ODE is neutral on [SB 767] and on the charter schools issue. She merely provided technical assistance.”
Others are not so understanding. Greg Chaimov, who in his former job of legislative counsel was in charge of drafting legislation, says Hunt’s actions raise serious questions.
“If I were the State Board, I would be extremely troubled by staff [Hunt] providing advice the State Board did not want pursued,” Chaimov says. “To have a staff member doing something adverse to the board’s interest would be troubling.” (ODE and elected State Superintendent of Public Instruction Susan Castillo operate independently of the board but provide it with staffing and other support.)
Wyse acknowledges that Hunt’s advice to Wimmer contradicted his board’s wishes but says he’s not bothered. “The bill does take away our authority,” he says, “but I don’t think she was doing it to help OEA. She would offer assistance to anyone who asked.”
State Sen. Vicki Walker (D-Eugene)—who along with Sen. Sen. Joanne Verger (D-Coos Bay)
Rick Metsger (D-Welches) were the only Democrats to vote against SB 767 last week—says Wyse is being too kind.
“I think there’s a clear conflict here,” Walker says. “The board took a position and Cindy should have played straight with that position and she didn’t.”
Hunt says she has done nothing wrong.
“If ORCA had come to me seeking advice, I would have helped them,” she says. “We are a neutral party.”
FACT: Under current law, the state allocates about $6,000 per public school student. The money follows students, so if a student attends an online charter school, the money leaves the local district. There are at least 17 other providers of online education seeking to operate in Oregon.