Oregon Superintendents Draft Plan For State-Operated Virtual School Open to All Students

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Recognizing that traditional bricks-and-mortar schools aren’t a good fit for every child, a group of Lane County superintendents is calling for the creation of a state-led virtual school that would be available to any student.

The draft proposal, the work of a committee led by Springfield schools Superintendent Nancy Golden, comes amid an escalating statewide debate over online education — much of it focused on virtual charter schools, which have sprouted in a half-dozen mostly small communities over the past four years.

Golden, who worked with Bethel Superintendent Colt Gill and Oakridge Superintendent Don Kordosky on the plan, said the effort stems from a combination of growing local interest in online learning, and mounting concern about the shape it’s taking in Oregon.

Though a handful of school districts offer some form of online learning, virtual public charter schools — which operate independently under sponsorship by local districts — essentially have cornered the market.

That’s raised concerns over the lack of uniform standards and — most controversial — the loss of students, and the state per-pupil funds that follow them, to charter schools that in some cases are run by private, for-profit companies.

But that isn’t Golden’s chief worry.

“I’m less concerned about that than the fact that, if this works for some kids, then shouldn’t we be providing it for our kids?” said Golden, who has long been interested in expanding technology in public schools and has testified before the Legislature on related issues.

The local proposal, which most likely will be presented at this month’s regular meeting of Lane County superintendents, envisions the Oregon Department of Education acting as a broker for online education, responsible for managing vendors, contracts and staff; evaluating current online courses and creating new ones; and ensuring that every district has equal access to services.

Though the proposal emphasizes that attempts should be made to hold existing virtual schools harmless, Golden conceded it’s unlikely to win praise from online charter operators.

“In essence, if I was them, I’d feel like I might be driven out of business,” she said.

The proposal refers to a “blurring of lines” between charter and virtual schools. “Currently, virtual schools in Oregon are run according to laws never designed for virtual schools, but designed instead for charter and alternative education schools,” it says.

Not so, insists Jeff Kropf of Sublimity, a former state legislator who supported the 1999 charter school law and now chairs the board of Oregon Connections Academy, the state’s first and largest online charter school.

“I don’t see it as any different than the current bricks-and-mortar charter school,” he said, noting that in either case, sponsoring districts keep a portion of the roughly $6,300 annual per-pupil funds. “I think we’re getting really outstanding results, if you look at our test results and you listen to our parents and our students. We think the online framework that exists is working really well.”

As for the notion of a state-led virtual school, “we oppose that direction, because that is not within the spirit of the charter school law,” he said. “We believe in the online charter school business it is better to have competition. It forces each of our organizations to continually excel and improve the program. If you have one state-run online charter school, you have a monopoly with no incentive to constantly improve.”

Another proposal, put forth by the Oregon Association of Education Service Districts, echoes the Lane County group’s call for equitable access and uniform standards for online education, but suggests that ESDs, rather than the state, provide the service

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