Virtual Combat

Oregon's teachers union hates online charter schools. But its alternative has little to show for millions of taxpayer dollars.

In the next 10 days, Gov. John Kitzhaber is likely to sign a controversial online charter school bill that infuriates his largest financial backer, the 48,000-member Oregon Education Association.

The bill would allow up to 3 percent of the students in any district to attend online charter schools. Currently, fewer than 1 percent of Oregon's 550,000 public school students do so.

OEA President Gail Rasmussen and her members have plastered the issue across op-eds and blogs and showered Kitzhaber—who took $1.1 million of the teachers union's money in his narrow 2010 victory over Republican Chris Dudley—with letters and emails urging his veto.

"Bottom line, we want a quality education for every kid," Rasmussen says.

Online charter schools are public but are typically run by private companies paid by school districts to provide distance learning for students. OEA has fought the expansion of these schools for years and lost its battle to kill the most recent bill in the Legislature.

But few people know that six years ago OEA pushed for a state-run online entity that would compete with online charters. 

The OEA-backed plan has cost the state more than $5 million. 

It has yet to teach a single student.

That failure neither pleases nor surprises Rep. Betty Komp (D-Woodburn).

A former public schoolteacher and administrator in the Woodburn district, Komp says she knew in her first session in 2005 that the K-12 system needed to create an alternative for students not served by conventional seat-based learning—that is, the state paying for kids based on the number of children filling chairs in Oregon classrooms.

"I've been saying that since January 2005 when I entered the Legislature," says Komp.

Her research and her own experience in schools convinced Komp there's a small but significant group of students for whom online learning is the best option. She says she pushed for the state to help provide it.

"I sat down with the OEA lobbyist multiple times in 2005," Komp says. "All I was ever told was, 'OEA has a plan.'"

That plan, Komp says, turned out to be the Oregon Virtual School District. 

In 2005, the Legislature approved the virtual school and directed the Oregon Department of Education to provide a state-run alternative to charter schools, which are public but often affiliated with for-profit corporations. As state law puts it: "The Oregon Virtual School District shall provide online courses."

But after six years and the appropriation of $7.1 million, including another $1.5 million lawmakers just approved for the current biennium, the Oregon Virtual School District has yet to provide a single "course."

Steve Nelson, the Oregon Department of Education manager who oversees the virtual school, contends the effort has been successful. In the past year, he notes, about one in five Oregon public school students accessed the virtual district's offerings, which include academic materials vetted by the Education Department and training for teachers. Where an online charter school provides a student with a teacher and course credit, all the taxpayer-funded school provides is content.

Despite the 2005 law's intent, Nelson acknowledges the state's efforts are not an alternative to online charter school offerings. "We are not set up to compete with them from a financial point of view," Nelson says.

The OEA's Rasmussen says there are three reasons online charter schools—and the bill Kitzhaber is poised to sign—won't provide the high-quality education all Oregon kids deserve.

First, allowing up to 3 percent of students (about 16,500) to migrate to online charters could transfer $90 million annually from cash-strapped schools to the online, for-profit corporations that run the charter schools. Second, OEA worries online charters are insufficiently unaccountable. And third, Rasmussen says, the closed-door deal-making that guaranteed passage of the bill, HB 2301, cut parents and teachers out of the conversation.

For Komp, her frustration with the state's inability to come up with a meaningful solution led her to be one of five House Democrats to vote yes on the online charter schools bill now on Kitzhaber's desk.

Komp says she shares OEA's concerns that current online charter schools may not be sufficiently accountable. But she also says the demand parents are expressing—as evidenced by the rapid growth of online charters—shows they care more about the availability of online courses than who is providing them.

If the K-12 system does not provide better online options, Komp says, parents will continue to flee public schools.

"There is a group of students that is highly likely to drop out if we don't provide them other options,” Komp says. “That is a big cost to society.” 

FACT: The state has placed $600 million of Oregon Public Employees Retirement funds with Apollo Management, the parent of Oregon Connections Academy, the state's largest online charter school.

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