Fewer than one percent of Oregon students are enrolled in online public schools. But for nearly five years, the funding, quality, and financial management of those virtual schools have been dominating discussions in state Capitol hearing rooms and school district board rooms.
Last week, the Oregon board of education took a small step toward resolving one of the thorniest questions of the virtual school movement: Who decides whether a child can attend an online-only school?
In Oregon, where education dollars follow the students, the issue pits parent choice against school district stability.
Initially, each of the six members of the state board suggested a slightly different solution. After nearly three hours of discussion, however, most board members said they would support parent choice, but only if there was a cap on how many students could leave an individual district.
“Parents should have the option to transfer,” said the board’s chairwoman, Brenda Frank. “I don’t believe the district has all the answers. But I think there just needs to be a gate.”
Though the members couldn’t agree on details, the board planned to send that recommendation as part of a larger report on virtual schools to the legislature on Sept. 1. The legislature is scheduled to take up the issue again in 2011.
Since Oregon’s first virtual charter school opened in 2005, some school districts, teachers’ union leaders, and politicians have been concerned that the schools would pull too many children and resources from traditional public schools and cripple already-underfunded programs.
Meanwhile, parents and charter and virtual school advocates have argued that parents deserve the right to choose what educational options best fit their children.
Kaaren Heikes, the executive director of the Northwest Center for Educational Options, the state’s charter school association, said the board’s consensus on the issue was an important compromise.
“Districts wanted to be protected from losing too many kids,” Ms. Heikes said. “That fear is addressed. Brick-and-mortar schools have natural enrollment limits. This gives virtual schools a reasonable limit as well.”
Virtual charter schools are public schools that operate through a charter or contract with a local district or the state board of education. They employ teachers who provide lessons online using electronic documents, videos, e-mail, telephones, and Web cameras. Oregon Connections Academy, which opened in partnership with the Scio school district in 2005, was the state’s first virtual school. It served more than 2,500 students during the 2009-10 school year.
Rob Kremer is a local charter school advocate and consultant for Connections Academy, the Baltimore-based for-profit company that provides services, including curriculum, to Oregon Connections Academy. He said he had mixed feelings about the state board’s recommendation.
“If the policy statement is that districts do not have veto power over students’ requests to enroll in an online charter school, I would say that’s progress,” Mr. Kremer said. “That said, once we get to that cap, any school district will be able to use these arbitrary caps to deny children the education their parents want for them.”
‘Lost in the Conversation’
But some, like Laurie Wimmer, a government-relations consultant for the Oregon Education Association, said the board had to consider the needs of the more than 500,000 students in Oregon public schools who could be adversely affected by the choices of a few parents.
Oregon funds schools according to their enrollments. So, as students leave one district, so does the state money. If schools lose enough students, their districts might reduce programs, cut staffing, or close the schools altogether.
“People always criticize us for focusing too much on the system, but we are charged with keeping the system in balance and being fiscal managers of that system,” Ms. Wimmer said. “This is about all students, not just the few who choose a laptop-only education. I think it is the majority of kids that were getting lost in the conversation.”
As part of the recommendations, the state board decided not to require districts to offer an online school option to students, but instead to encourage districts to make online options available.
The board also discussed how virtual schools could be funded. Several members suggested the state set a default price or funding level, but allow districts to negotiate directly with online school providers.
It’s still unclear under the recommendations whether parents would have to get permission from their local school districts to have their children attend online schools, as is now required by a law passed during the 2009 session of the legislature.
A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 2010 edition of Education Week as Oregon Takes Step to Resolve Thorny Virtual School Issue