Virtual Ping Pong

At a recent meeting of the Oregon Legislature’s Online Learning Task Force, a lobbyist representing a virtual charter school quipped that the Task Force was engaging in a game of political “ping pong.” This is one of the rare things that every lobbyist in the room seemed to agree on.

The game began in the court of the Oregon Department of Education (ODE), which has been dealing with regulating virtual charter schools since the first one opened in 2005. As the schools grew (now enrolling over 4,000 students), the ODE saw that many traditional issues of brick-and-mortar schools do not apply to these unique institutions. After a few years of examination, the ODE began to develop guidelines for their regulation and expansion into more school districts. In the meantime, they have allowed online charter schools to grow (albeit cautiously), opening this important option to students across the state.

Around the time that the ODE began internally circulating a draft of proposed recommendations for online charter schools in early 2009, the state legislature stepped in (at the request of public employee unions), claiming that virtual schools needed to be regulated more heavily. A few state legislators even wrote letters to the ODE requesting that it back off the issue. Subsequently, the legislature hastily removed much of the ODE’s authority over virtual charters by passing Senate Bill 767, adding additional requirements and ambiguous (but ominous) provisions that could result in at least one closed virtual charter school by 2011, if the bill is not amended.

The legislature also skirted some contentious issues by commissioning the Online Learning Task Force to look into issues surrounding these unique charter schools. The Task Force, recognizing its own lack of time or expertise, is recommending that the legislature send many issues back to the ODE, which in turn is supposed to offer recommendations back to the legislature for the 2011 session. In the meantime, the Task Force will continue meeting to create more recommendations for the legislature in 2011.

Thus far, this process has produced some poorly written legislation that threatens the future of at least one virtual charter school. It also, at least temporarily, robs many children of innovative and largely successful educational options. SB 767 capped Oregon’s virtual charter schools (which previously were growing quickly) at their current levels until fall 2011. Fortunately, the Task Force is recommending that the legislature clarify the ambiguous language in order to prevent any virtual charter schools from needlessly closing. But the recommendation stops short of reopening the option to many new students by leaving the temporary cap in place.

The Task Force recommendation also would create a larger barrier for new virtual charter schools to provide education in Oregon, by requiring administrators to have state certification. This is in addition to SB 767’s certification requirement for teachers. Certification requirements will exclude excellent and qualified teachers and administrators from virtual charter schools, though they otherwise would be able to work in a brick and mortar charter school. A 2006 Harvard study confirmed that on average, certified, uncertified and alternatively certified teachers performed equivalently. Likewise, at recent hearings, administrators tried to explain that current certification programs were unimportant for virtual charter school administrators.

One of the most interesting and dubious hopes of the Task Force is for the legislature to separate virtual charter schools from the regular charter school law. Ostensibly this will make both types of schools easier to regulate. This could provide opportunities or hidden dangers. It could make it easier to eliminate many useless restrictions that hinder Oregon’s pursuit of better public education. However, separating virtual charter schools from regular charter school law could leave each group more vulnerable than before.

Instead of blocking innovation, the legislature should ensure that students throughout Oregon have the option of attending online charter schools. It should remove the cap on virtual charter schools, revoke any teacher or administrator certification requirements, and allow parents from any district to enroll in virtual charter schools without having to get their local district’s permission. Virtual charter schools are performing remarkably well in Oregon, for a population that overall is significantly poorer than average. But the game of legislative “ping pong” is holding Oregon back, while other states and nations make substantial progress in education.

Christina Martin is a policy analyst for the School Choice Project at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.