A number of months ago on a completely unrelated post, right-wing conservative activist Rob Kremer asked if anyone on Blue Oregon was going to write about SB767.
This question is about a death penalty of a different sort...
I am interested in the opinion of BlueOregon folks on the attempt by the OEA and the rest of the education establishment to shut down Oregon's virtual charter schools.
The bill is SB 767, sponsored by OEA, COSA, AFT, OSEA and a slew of Democratic legislators.
I was hoping at some point Blue Oregon would address this issue. There are 4000 students in these public schools right now. I know this is off topic, but do "progressives" support shutting down public schools like these?
Honestly, virtual schools are a cool concept. Kids get to work at home at their own pace. A teacher (or teachers) works with them and their parents to bring the child along through their lessons. It should be cost effective (no building to maintain, no utility bills, very little in the way of classified staff...etc). And I can see how, for some kids, this would be best for their learning style.
But after researching this for awhile, my personal answer to Rob's question: Yes--so they can get their crap together.
Oregon charter school law requires that all of their schools be nonprofit. And ORCA itself is indeed set up as a nonprofit (note the ubiquitous righty Jeff Kropf is the President). The folks associated with ORCA have loopholed around that law by contracting out the running of the school to a for-profit entity, Connections Academy LLC.
ORCA has 2700 students. 15 of them are from Scio. The rest have "open enrolled" from other school districts or home schooling programs around the state. When these students enroll in ORCA, $6000 of State School Fund resources that would otherwise stay in the resident district goes with them. Even for the previously home schooled students, who never used to be counted in their home district. That means the resident district gets a bill from ORCA for students they'd never received state funds for, thus draining even more money from that district.
Some of it goes to Scio School District (which is why they agree to host the school). But the vast majority (95%--in a special deal ORCA negotiated with ScioSD) goes to ORCA.
ORCA then turns around and initiates a no-bid contract with the for-profit Connections Academy LLC.
Keep in mind that all of this is done with your tax dollars.
A look at the contract between ORCA and the Connections Academy LLC raises some red flags. (This PDF is a little confusing. Page 1 is a page from the contract with ScioSD, which I'm not referencing. Pages 2 and 3 are the relevant docs for this discussion).
On page two, the highlighted portion says, "Certain materials shall be designated by CA (Connections Academy) as nonconsumable. Such materials are the property of CA and are to be returned upon the termination of this Agreement..."
Uh..wait a sec. Aren't my tax dollars going to pay for this stuff? The computers and other stuff that's purchased, that's public dollars being used--how is it that it belongs to Connections Academy? When Scio School District buys a computer with taxpayer dollars, it belongs to the public. When Connections Academy buys a computer with taxpayer dollars, it belongs to them. Kinda sketchy.
On page 3, another red flag:
The Governing Board acknowledges that the programs, courses, assessments, individual lesson plans and techniques for preparation of Personalized Learning Plans of CA and its vendor(s) are proprietary in nature and the confidential and exclusive property of CA and its vendor(s). The Governing Board's access to this proprietary information is for the limited purpose and use as instructional material and monitoring of CA. Such access shall be revoked and all propietary information returned upon termination of this agreement. The Governing Board has no right, by virtue of this Agreement or otherwise, or to disclose the content of such property, except upon prior written approval from an officer of CA.
If I'm reading this correctly, all of the materials and documentation used to teach the kids is proprietary and confidential. That means that the public has no access to see how their money is being spent. We don't know if the curricula being used is in line with Oregon standards. We can't look at lesson plans. We can't see testing materials. Currently, I can walk into the office of my neighborhood public school and ask to view the curriculum, the school improvement plan, the Local School Committee information or anything else having to do with what my tax dollars pay for that isn't a student or employee private record. It would seem that ORCA and Connections Academy LLC don't allow the public to view that stuff.
All of ORCA's students work from home. They are required to have a "learning coach", which is generally a stay-at-home parent, who must speak English. Thus a single-parent or low-income or non-English speaking household (or a combination thereof) can't access ORCA. Here is a copy of the contract that the "learning coach" signs, which indicates the English-only requirement. The learning coach doesn't have to be the parent. It can be anyone 18 years or older that meets the other criteria. But as far as I can tell, it's almost always a stay-at-home parent.
I'm no expert on Oregon education law, but aren't public schools in Oregon supposed to be open to students of all income levels no matter which language they speak? And public dollars used to subsidize home-schooling? Hmm....
Additionally, regular virtual schools in Oregon have a 50% rule, under Oregon law (2005's SB 1092). This means that enrollment is limited to out-of-district students to no more than 50%. Apparently, the ORCA folks have found a loophole in state law because they're a charter school: no 50% limit. Apparently that gets them a waiver.
So these guys can drain as much money out of other school districts as they can get students to enroll. I'm sure their slick marketing doesn't hurt that cause.
Kropf's role with the school is, as I noted, the President of the nonprofit side. State Representative Matt Wingard (R-Wilsonville), a somewhat dubious character in his own right, has something to do with curriculum, although I'm not exactly sure what. But he gets paid by ORCA to do it, according to his Statement of Economic Interest (note: he spelled "curriculum" wrong...oy). Former Republican State Rep. Jerry Krummel is (or has been) involved, too.
Kremer's role is a little murkier to me. Kremer is the Treasurer for the Conservative Majority Project PAC, who has received some hefty sums from the ever-present Loren Parks. This PAC gives LOTS of cash to conservative Republican candidates for office. Connections Academy LLC contributes financially to Conservative Majority Project PAC.
Yup. Your tax dollars are going from the school into a tidy set of accounts to elect conservative Republicans.
Further, ORCA has undergone site visit reviews a number of times. These reviews were conducted by a pro-charter school advocate whose job was to discern whether or not ORCA was meeting all of Oregon's charter school standards.
The first review looks like it was a disaster. The school was dinged for not having a plan to deal with ELL students, no assessment system in place, no way to tell if student outcomes were aligned with state standards, no way to tell how they were implementing the school's mission or instructional program. They couldn't determine if their teachers were properly enrolled with PERS.
And that just scratches the surface. The thing goes on for well over 50 pages.
This was an especially ugly comment (from page 4 of the PDF--marked as page 9):
Based on data provided, CSDC is unable to determine whether the school is serving the students it specified as targeted in its charter (i.e. racial/ethnic composition representative of Oregon overall, 30%-40% qualifying for free/reduced lunch, 15% with special learning needs; and students whose families seek direct involvement in their education or those who are "homebound" due to illness or disability, far ahead or behind of their peers, at-risk of academic failure, pursuing athletic or artistic careers) and whether the school's instructional program and culture result in student achievement of individual and school-wide goals.
Other problems: recording and program-wide understanding of attendance, the serving (or lack thereof) of special needs students, a program-wide problem understanding what constitutes "performance", the lack of stable enrollment from situations where the "learning coach" isn't a parent, a lack of understanding of what certain budget line items are actually going toward, low student retention rates, the role of the "learning coach" vs the role of "ORCA teacher" is unclear and undefined, a need for the school to review whether or not the goods and services of the for-profit contractor represent a strong value for the money.
And this one:(from page 20 of the PDF):
Oregon AG Opinion Number 8273 allows for a chater school's nonprofit board of directors to contract operations to a private, for-profit entity and addresses the nature of that relationship as follows: "Because a public charter school must retain a right of control over the for-profit entity and provide procedural safegaurd to affected members of the public in relation to those aspects of the school's operations that constitute the governmental function of providing a public education." CSDC urges the ORCA board to thoroughly familiarize itself with this AG Opinion and ensure that is in compliance with its provisions.
A second evaluation was done later by the same person, with a slightly improved result. But much of the problems seem to still be in evidence.
The Feb-June 2006 summary of her findings are here.
Apparently somebody wasn't liking this person's critique, however. They quit using her and subsequent evaluations were rosier, if vastly less substantive. Sources tell me that the evaluator had little to no experience with with school evaluations.
ORCA failed to make adequate yearly progress in the 2007-2008 school year. Apparently they put out a press release for the 2008-2009 year, saying they've met. ODE doesn't have the just-finished year's AYP info on their website yet.
That brings us to the ORCA draft budget.
Some of the stand out line items:
Estimated enrollment for ORCA for 2008-09: 2000
Estimated budget for testing: $59,192
(About $29.60 per student)
By way of comparison, Beaverton School District enrollment for this school year:37,552
BSD testing budget for 09 fiscal year: $526,703
(About $14 per student)
Not exactly apples to apples, but close:
Estimated Teacher FTE at ORCA: 43
(I rounded up to 50 to include noninstructional staff, in case they were also doing development)
$1572 (including non-instructional staff estimate) per 1 FTE.
Beaverton School District: # of teachers 2,457
Budget for staff development (instructional staff only) 2,449,978
$997 per teacher (instructional staff only)
Those were the first two similar line items I noticed in the two budgets. It certainly seems like it's costing ORCA a lot more in operations costs, at least for these items. Seems odd. Why would they be so much more expensive? It's definitely worth unraveling and understanding this very substantive cost difference.
Senate Bill 767 has undergone numerous amendments/changes, so here's what I understand it does:
- Creates a two year moratorium on all virtual charter creation, renewal, waivers and growth of existing programs, pending further study. (Programs operating according to current law in public schools, whether district created or sponsored nonprofits are exempt)
- A work group of interested parties will be appointed to study the best way to provide accountable, equitable way to do this. Work group will scrutinize the true costs, quality issues, curriculum alignment to state standards and other relevant data and report back to 2010 Supplementary Legislative Session.
- The work group and the moratorium end in 2011.
- Quality standards for existing virtual schools, financial accountability and budget transparency for the use of public dollars for a private gain.
It's entirely possible that ORCA has solved some of it's problems. If they have indeed met Adequate Yearly Progress, that's a good sign. But the issues of transparency, the use of public dollars for "propietary" stuff that taxpayers can't see, the large expenses for line items relative to other public schools, the requirements for English speaking and the lack of access for those who don't have a stay at home parent are in need of examination.
The legislature should take this time out and make this more accountable to Oregon taxpayers.
By Carla Axtman
June 19, 2009
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