Friday, March 14, 2008

The regulatory urge

The state regulators are really trying to put the clamps on virtual charter schools, as reported in the Oregonian today.

For the better part of a year, the State Board of Education has been kicking around the issue of whether to allow additional on-line charter school programs into Oregon. There is currently one program, the Oregon Connections Academy (ORCA) which I helped get started.

The reason the state board is involved at all is because of a closed door deal that was cut in the 2005 session, in which the teacher union wanted to stop the new type of schools in their tracks. They convinced Speaker Karen Minnis to go along with a bill (in trade for something else, never clear at the time) that required any on-line charter school to get half of its students from the sponsoring district.

At the time, we were just getting ORCA organized. We got it done barely under the wire, and so were not forced to comply with this new “50% rule” until its first charter contract expires in 2010.

Other school districts are now proposing to create statewide virtual charter schools, and they have filed requests to the State Board of Education to waive the 50% rule, which they have the power to do. This was the question the state board pretty much resolved yesterday.

So the question to the board was basically how far do they want to open the window for on-line schooling? The answer: “Not very.”

I went to all of the meetings as they kicked this thing around. It was grueling, watching these mostly well-meaning people, most of whom have a decided bias toward preserving the status quo, try to get a handle on this innovative way to deliver education services.

Bottom line: the urge to control won out. The longer they kicked it around, the more the board members “concerns” found their way into conditions, limitations, and edicts on how any new school could operate.

The interesting thing to observe was the overriding attitude among the board members that it was absolutely their purview to make decisions about whether or not to allow these types of schools. None of them knew much about virtual schooling to begin with, but that didn’t prevent them from exercising their authority to control them.

Time and again individual board members revealed through their comments that their first concern was “the system.” They worried about the “impact” on school districts if they lost kids to a virtual school. I never once heard a board member worry about the impact on a student who is denied access to the educational option of his choice due to the controls the board was placing on virtual schools.

So it was apparent, after all was said and done, that the majority on the State Board of Education still has the system as its number one priority, and the interests of kids and parents is somewhere down the list. The implicit lack of trust that parents could choose wisely for their kids was obvious.

The irony was that the Board didn’t seem to understand that they actually don’t have the kind of control they assumed they had. The list of conditions they placed on virtual charter schools in Oregon are so onerous, that any school district that wants to create a virtual program will simply organize the school under Oregon’s alternative school law, and be able to circumvent almost every single one of the restrictions the state placed on the schools!

Here’s why: The big reason to organize a virtual school as a charter is because charters can enroll any kid in the state, even without the approval of the student’s home district. But the State Board required virtual charters to get home district approval anyway, and they also slathered on a ton of other restrictions and requirements, like caps on the number of kids they could enroll.

So they took away the “open enrollment” benefit of being a charter. So a virtual school will just organize as an alternative school. Alternative schools have to get approval from the home district also, but the State Board can’t touch them. All the other restrictions disappear!

So the State Board made that classic regulatory mistake: assuming they have more control than they actually do, so the regulations simply will be circumvented.

What does this all mean for ORCA? We don’t know. For now, ORCA is exempt from the “50% rule, so it operates outside the regulatory grip of the State Board. In 2010, ORCA might have to apply for a waiver from the rule, and that would subject the school to any similar restrictions and conditions the State Board wanted to cook up.

So the future is uncertain indeed. Stay tuned.


Anonymous said...

How is OR Connections Acad funded?
Scio is the sponsoring district. With 1500 or so students in OCA, Scio is rolling in dough if the state is giving Scio 6 grand per student and they only pass 80% of it along to OCA.

Gus Miller

Anonymous said...

Choice of education is one of the most basic civil rights. It's nonsense to assume they can limit us.

Reasonable choice of school is the basis and limit for which schools are made. Piling regulations on top, simply to show they can flex their muscles is stupid.

Anonymous said...

What is a "basic civil right"?
How many are there?

I prefer to look upon public education in Oregon as a service provided to the children of all parents or guardians who agree to enter into a social contract among the taxpayers who fund it, the educators who deliver education services and the parents and guardians of the students.

Contracts have rules and restrictions that all should conform to. It is currently a lousy contract for "the children" and the taxpayers of Oregon.

Gus Miller