Senate bills could virtually halt online charter schools

SALEM — The Farrimonds of Phoenix started the school year in September just like every other family in the state.

Except that Celine, a seventh-grader, and her sister, Karli, who is in first grade, did their homework with the Rocky Mountains as a backdrop. And the girls didn't learn about Mount Rushmore from a social studies book, but from a park ranger at the monument's base.

The Phoenix family spent three months traveling across the country, a trip made by possible by the girls' enrollment in the Oregon Connections Academy, one of two exclusively online public schools in the state.

"We wanted to be able to have the flexibility of learning at home," said Polly Farrimond, the girls' mother. "We love the curriculum. It's really like doing public school at home."

But that flexibility afforded by the online charter schools may soon come to an end. A pair of bills the Senate will discuss next month may endanger the online charter schools that combine to serve more than 3,000 Oregon students.

Senate Bill 767 requires that 50 percent of students enrolled in the virtual charter schools live in the host district.

Its sister legislation, SB 881, would limit the state funds online charter schools receive for enrolled students who live outside the district.

If both bills pass, they would effectively close online charter schools in Oregon, virtual school supporters say.

Lawmakers said they don't oppose online education but they're concerned the virtual schools are sending state education dollars outside Oregon to pay the companies that operate the Web sites.

The Oregon Connections Academy, hosted by the Scio School District, has about 2,400 students, including 90 percent who live outside the district. The Web site it uses is operated by Connections Academy Inc., a Baltimore, Md.-based company.

The Oregon Virtual Academy is chartered by the North Bend School District and uses curriculum provided by K12 Inc., which is headquartered in Herndon, Va.

Oregon Virtual Academy served up to 600 students in 2008, its first year, according to Reuters news service.

The education received by students enrolled in the charter schools is similar to the curriculum taught at traditional public schools. Students enrolled in the virtual schools receive assignments online from state-licensed teachers. Parents, or learning coaches, guide the students through the curriculum, and students take the same state tests taken by their traditional public school counterparts.

Proponents of the program tout its low cost, convenience and the freedom some students have seen since their enrollment.

In addition to the convenience of learning at home or on the road, Polly Farrimond said the online environment allows her children to work at their own pace.

Karli, 6, is currently taking third-grade math.

"I don't frankly think we would go back to public school if they shut it down," Polly Farrimond said of the Oregon Connections Academy. "I think we would develop our own curriculum."

She said her youngest daughter wouldn't be challenged in a public school where she has to work at the same level as her peers. "You couldn't do that in public school," Farrimond said. "They socially couldn't be put in a third grade when they're 6 years old."

Janel Thomas of Central Point is on the board of the Oregon Virtual Public Schools Alliance. Her oldest sons, 6-year-old Max and 9-year-old Ben, are enrolled in the Oregon Virtual Academy.

She said she believes parents deserve the right to choose the best way to educate their children. If SB 767 passes it would allow only students in grades 7-12 to attend virtual charter schools.

"For us, the brick-and-mortar school wasn't effectively teaching my children," Thomas said. "I'm not against brick-and-mortar schools on any level, but I believe parents should have a choice in how their children are educated."

Added Thomas: "I'm not the law side of it; I'm the mom side of it. I'm trying to do the best thing for my kids, which is what this is."

But for lawmakers trying to get the most bang for their already diminished supply of bucks, any system that sees state dollars sent elsewhere needs work, said Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland.

Since 2007, lawmakers have been struggling to determine an approach toward virtual schools that works for families and students, but also maximizes state dollars.

"A great concern that I have, and I share with many legislators across the state, is that you have a system where a small school district can form a charter school that hires a company that sucks millions of dollars out of our state economy," Buckley said.

One model already exists, Buckley said, and he said legislators are working on ways to expand it.

It is called the Oregon Virtual School District and it is run by the Salem-Keizer School District and it allows students to supplement their education by taking classes online.

A student's home school district pays Salem-Keizer $150 per class. A teacher from the home school teaches the coursework online.

"That's a lot better than $5,000" being shipped out of the state, he said.

Buckley said he and other state lawmakers don't want to shut the virtual schools down.

"It's a complex issue because it's a new entity," Buckley said. "We want to make sure it's fair. We want to make sure students have access to it. But at the same time we want to make sure no one's making an obscene amount of profit off it."

Bob Albrecht is a freelance writer living in Eugene. Reach him at ralbrec@uoregon.edu.

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