Oregon’s major teachers union, The Oregon Education Association (OEA), is seen by many observers as the big loser coming out of the recent legislative session in Salem. Why? Because it failed to convince enough legislators to stop some modest school choice bills from passing. It also couldn’t stop Governor John Kitzhaber, whom it endorsed and financially supported, from agreeing to sign these bills as part of a larger education reform package.
The highest profile bill in question was House Bill 2301, known as the virtual public charter school bill. The union has been trying to shut down online public charter schools ever since they started making inroads several years ago. This year it had hoped to cripple these schools, which it sees as competition to the brick-and-mortar schools in which its members teach. Instead, the legislature agreed to let these online schools expand from teaching about one percent of the state’s K-12 students now up to at least three percent of students in any and all school districts around the state.
In 2005 the union backed a bill to create a state-run competitor to these innovative online schools. Known as the Oregon Virtual School District, it has since been funded to the tune of more than seven million dollars. Legislators appropriated the funds with the intention that the district would “provide online courses.” But as Nigel Jaquiss reported in his recent Willamette Week exposé, “…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.’”*
This revelation calls into question which online schools are real and which may appear to be real, but are not. Schools like Oregon Connections Academy and Oregon Virtual Academy are real schools with hundreds of real teachers educating thousands of real students across the state.
The state-run Oregon Virtual School District, on the other hand, is truly a virtual district in the not real sense of the term. It has no teachers and no students. The only real part is that it has spent millions of real taxpayer dollars. And for what? It has a nice website and offers some helpful content and tools for teachers. But that’s about it. Somewhere along the line, its mission morphed from providing real online courses to hosting some “academic materials vetted by the Education Department and training for teachers.”
The Oregon Department of Education manager who oversees the Virtual District says that it is not an alternative to online charter school offerings. “We are not set up to compete with them from a financial point of view,” he says.* Real online charter schools, paying real teachers to teach real students, receive on average less than 5,700 public dollars a year for each enrolled student.** A simple calculation tells us that the $7 million allocated to the Virtual District so far could have been used to teach at least 1,200 students for one school year, or 200 students over the six years it has received state funding. But, again, so far the district has taught zero real students.
The teachers union keeps calling for more accountability from Oregon’s real online public charter schools, the ones with real teachers educating real students. It seems far past time for state legislators and taxpayers to call for accountability on the part of the Oregon Virtual School District. What have we gotten for $7 million in this “district”? If the answer is “not much,” then we should close it down and refocus our energy and resources on real schools with real students.
Oregon’s online public charter schools are not virtual; they are real schools where real learning occurs. Just because their teachers may not wear the union label shouldn’t give OEA the right to stop them from competing with the brick-and-mortar schools its members occupy.
Parents and students hold real online public charter schools accountable every day as they freely enroll and disenroll. More school choice will give more parents and students that power over brick-and-mortar schools as well. If OEA wants to keep students in classes taught by its members, it should figure out how to do that without holding the kids hostage. All students and their families deserve the right to choose where they get their education. Anything less is a disservice to them and to the taxpayers.
* “Virtual Combat: Oregon’s teachers union hates online charter schools. But its alternative has little to show for millions of taxpayer dollars,” Nigel Jaquiss, Willamette Week, July 20, 2011, http://www.wweek.com/portland/article-17755-virtual_combat.html.
** “Unintended Consequences: an analysis of charter school funding in Oregon”, Vanessa Wilkins, Northwest Center for Educational Options, April 21, 2010 http://www.nwceo.org/pdf/NWCEO_Charter_School_Funding_Study_May_2010.pdf.
The average Oregon public charter school received slightly over $5,700 per student in 2008/2009 according to the Oregon Department of Education Financial Database, depending on the district that charters them. Current online charter schools are chartered in districts that pay less than this amount; but if the Oregon Virtual School District were to accept students statewide, it likely would receive closer to the average charter payment per student. Note that the $5,700 average per student charter school funding is approximately half the total public funding of brick-and-mortar public schools in Oregon.
Steve Buckstein is Founder and Senior Policy Analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.