Oregon Freezes Virtual Charter Schools

Published September 1, 2009

After one of the most contentious debates of this year’s legislative session, the Oregon House and Senate put a two-year hold on the growth of virtual charter schools in the state.

Online charter schools enroll about a third of the state’s 12,000 charter school students, and the new law means the number won’t grow while a task force puts together future recommendations for the schools.

Proponents of the legislation say virtual charter schools need more legislative guidance, and the task force will consider issues such as funding and the effectiveness of online schooling for very young children.

The funding issue should be a moot point, says state Sen. Sal Esquivel (R-Medford). “Public schools receive 20 percent [of state per-pupil funding] for doing nothing when children leave for charter schools,” he noted. “We can educate kids for 80 percent of what we’re spending on public schools. My most successful high school right now is a community college, because they teach the remedial classes these kids didn’t pass.

“Our system is broken, because it’s about money. Until we change our mindset, we’re going to continue to go backward,” Esquivel added.

Party-Line Vote

The final version of Senate Bill 767 limits virtual charter schools to the number of students enrolled as of May 1, 2009. And with the exception of Oregon Connections Academy—the state’s largest online charter school, with nearly 2,600 students—all cyber charters now must pull at least 50 percent of their students from the charter-granting district.

The bill passed on a mostly party-line vote, with all Republicans in both chambers opposing it. Two Democrats in the Senate and five in the House joined them.

‘A Significant Problem’

State Rep. Betty Komp (D-Woodburn) noted online schools offer an option to students, such as teen mothers, who may not be able to attend bricks-and-mortar schools. She said she hopes the task force will make recommendations based on student achievement, not political motives.

“I believe many of my colleagues think we want our children to have the best teachers,” Komp said. “I think people just have doubts about the instructional quality, and they just want to have a few more protections.”

“I believe choice in competition is a healthy thing for all of our kids, and this bill certainly looks like it was putting some very tight restrictions on one of those kinds,” said state Rep. Sherrie Sprenger (R-Scio). “It’s a significant problem to those families who have come to me and said, ‘I want to enroll my kids and now I can’t.’ We’re cutting off access to families.”

Whitney Stewart ([email protected]) writes from Minnesota.

For more information …

Oregon S.B. 767: http://gov.oregonlive.com/bill/SB767/