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In time of distance learning, online charter schools draw legislative attention
Oregon students are vanishing.
There are 21,744 fewer students in Oregon public schools now than at the same time one year ago, representing a 3.7% decrease, according to the Oregon Department of Education. Student numbers across the nation are down. The trend has been attributed directly to the COVID-19 pandemic making parents less willing to send their children to school.
Only one type of Oregon school has seen enrollment surge in the pandemic: virtual public charter schools, with approximately 18,000 students enrolled as of Oct. 1. That surge has caught legislators' attention.
In Oregon, a virtual public charter school is a legally distinct nonprofit entity that operates under a binding agreement with a sponsoring school district while providing online courses. There are 20 virtual public charter schools in Oregon, the oldest in continuous operation since 2003. Since 2011, school districts have been able to restrict movement from their district schools if more than 3% of district students would attend virtual public schools.
This “3% cap” on virtual charter enrollment is the focus of at least six bills in the Oregon House and Senate that would raise the cap or remove it entirely.
All the bills were filed by Republican legislators or online charter advocates. Some Democratic legislators have dropped bills that would move policy in the opposite direction, adding further restrictions to virtual charters.
These bills demonstrate conflicting education philosophies. The bills that would open student movement and raise caps would give students greater mobility at the cost of district stability and funding. The bills that would restrict movement would seek to strengthen local schools by preserving cohorts of students that represent the community. These are partisan ideological conflicts, in Oregon and across the nation, where “school choice” has become a genuine battleground issue.
Making it easier or harder for students to enroll in a virtual public school could have direct learning impacts on all students, as it affects the character of schools.
Online virtual public schools are among the worst-performing schools in Oregon across all metrics. This mirrors the national trend, where data indicate that enrollment in a virtual public school can lead to months of learning loss versus a similar brick-and-mortar school over just a few years.
Advocates for these schools argue that the low graduation and completion rates are because their programs target students who have already been failed by physical public schools.
Virtual public charter schools, however, have been a valuable tool for school districts for years, allowing students from nontraditional and disadvantaged backgrounds access to public school programs that would not have been possible in previous generations.
With distance learning and the pandemic, they have also offered an additional option for parents. Some districts have leaned on their charter schools or their own online alternative programs to improve their distance learning efforts.
Oregon Virtual Academy Board Chair Barry Jahn said that although quickly adding teachers and students to their online systems caused strain, they had the advantage of knowing how to offer robust online learning programs from the first day of the pandemic. The academy is sponsored by the North Bend School District.
“No time was wasted on last-minute pivots, the trial and error of finding the right learning platform, or on wondering how to serve every student in spite of their specific academic needs,” he said in a joint statement with the academy’s middle school principal, Jamie Stiles, and the board treasurer, Myk Herndon. “We don't call it distance learning. We call it school."
- Richard Donovan
Legislative Services specialist