COVID-19 has been great for Oregon’s online charter schools

Many Oregon families opted out of their local districts and into public on-line schools; but not all families have that option

ABOVE PHOTO: James Hamilton pulled his son Price out of public schools as the coronavirus pandemic hit in the spring of 2020. He says Price enjoys the freedom and ability to be in control of his learning in an online charter school. – PMG Photo: Jonathan House

 

As the coronavirus surfaced in early 2020, James Hamilton was afraid.

The Tualatin resident had been diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age 10, leading to several health complications in the 40 years since. He felt exposed and vulnerable as the virus spread rapidly — faster than the state’s limited testing capacity could detect.

Children were suspected to carry the virus, and his son, Price, was in sixth grade. By the beginning of March, Gov. Kate Brown hadn’t yet closed public schools, and as a health precaution he and his wife, Kristin, pulled Price from Tualatin’s Hazelbrook Middle School, where he’d been an honors student.

On March 12, 2020, Brown shut down schools, but it was billed as a temporary measure. After weeks of uncertainty, the Hamiltons enrolled their son in a public online charter school.

“I’m the sole income-earner and we didn’t want anything to happen to me,” Hamilton said. “My wife and I never considered virtual school for our son before that.”

They were not alone.

Since the pandemic began, the number of Oregonians enrolling their children in online schools chartered under the umbrella of public school districts climbed by more than 50% — even as enrollment in traditional schools has declined.

While the pandemic has been challenging for traditional schools, online schools have thrived. The Oregon Department of Education tracks enrollment for 19 public online charter schools, ranging in size from a few dozen students to nearly 5,000.

In the 2018-19 school year, combined enrollment was 12,861. The following year, it climbed to 14,062, a 9% rise.

At the start of the current year, in the midst of the pandemic, the same 19 schools enrolled 21,788 students — a 55% increase over last year.

Student surge fuels profits at some schools

Public online charter schools are an odd feature of public schooling in Oregon. Under state law, they must be affiliated with (“chartered” by) traditional school districts, but are allowed to enroll students from all over the state, while technically drawing a roughly equivalent amount of per-student public funding despite being spared the costs of busing, lunch programs, building maintenance, utilities and outdoor activities. They also may hire non-union teachers at lower wages.

 And although public on-line charter schools must have a nonprofit board, they can be operated in conjunction with for-profit companies, some national, such as the publicly traded K12 Inc., which operates five schools in Oregon. In a call with shareholders last month, the company reported that the most recent quarterly revenue exceeded $392 million, a 52% jump from a year ago. 

Another national online school provider is the Maryland-based Connections Academy. That’s the vendor working with Willamette Connections Academy, where the Hamiltons enrolled their son.

These companies increase profit margins by keeping costs down — and critics say their local affiliates can engage in “district-shopping” to obtain a favorable contract. In 2015, for instance, Oregon Connections Academy sued its Scio School District for obstructing is wishes to move elsewhere.

For years in Oregon, the companies behind many online charter schools have dueled with their critics, such as the unions representing public school teachers. Those hostilities have only grown during the pandemic, as online enrollment grew.

“Distance learning, when guided by school districts and their educators, has evolved to meet student needs in a very difficult time,” said John Larson, president of the Oregon Education Association. “When the online experience is delivered by for-profit enterprises, however, we have not had the ability as a system to ensure quality and equity for students.”

The enrollment gains for public online charter schools this academic year would be even greater were it not for a state law capping public charter enrollment at 3% of each school district’s overall enrollment.

Some of the online charter schools and their supporters want to change that. Senate Bill 240, which would boost the cap from 3% to 4%, had one hearing in the state Senate Education Committee on April 21, but has since stalled.

However, the hearing gave full airing to the issues raised by online charter schools, with dozens of people submitting written testimony — James Hamilton among them.

For him, it is a matter of personal freedom and the pursuit of excellence.

“If my son were in a school district that had reached the 3% cap, he would have possibly faced a lost year of academia as so many parents with children in local brick-and-mortar schools using ‘distance learning’ have reported,” Hamilton wrote.

In an interview with Pamplin Media Group, Hamilton said the experience has been night-and-day for Price, who feels empowered to pursue learning in a way that wasn’t possible before.

“He really enjoys that flexibility,” Hamilton said. “He likes the fact that he is in control.”

Enrollment growth ignites old debate

The flexibility that works well for the Hamiltons, however, isn’t available to everyone. During the pandemic, parents, educators and others have lamented the extent to which remote learning has exacerbated disparities in public education. Many rural communities lack stable, affordable internet access. Many low-income parents are employed in jobs that don’t allow them to flex their schedules or work from home. An analysis of high school pass/fail rates in January showed that students of color were failing classes at two and three times the rate of their white classmates 

By contrast, parents who had the means often pooled resources to hire teachers to augment or replace the online learning offered by public schools.

Similarly, when it comes to public online charter schools, questions have arisen over whether they combat disparities, or further them.

Although online charter schools are open to all families in Oregon, their combined student body is about 27% whiter than enrollment statewide, according to data kept by the Oregon Department of Education and analyzed by Pamplin Media Group. And during the pandemic, that figure barely budged.

In the 18 public online charter schools reporting the race and ethnicity of their students, white enrollment climbed by nearly 5,500 students last year, amounting to more than three-fourths of those schools’ overall enrollment boost of 7,212.

Meanwhile, on the statewide level, total white enrollment declined by about 20,000, equivalent to about 90% of the overall enrollment drop of 22,000 students.

The on-line charter ‘gap’

Many public charter schools across the country have demonstrated success at educating a variety of students, including those who have struggled in traditional schools. And a few, including notable examples in New York and Texas, have even shown an ability to break down historic patterns of segregation.

Since online charter schools are less constricted by geographic boundaries, they theoretically could draw a diverse student body. In practice, however, academic studies have consistently shown that online charters are disproportionately white.

Why that is, and what the effects of that are on students, is unclear, said Bryan Mann, an assistant professor in the University of Kansas Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies. “I think there are more questions than answers right now,” he said. “And that’s not necessarily a good place to be in as a researcher. But that’s just the reality of how this last year was.”

In a 2019 study, Mann found that, in 19 of the 20 states with comparable data, there was a higher percentage of white enrollment at online public charters than in traditional schools.

In five of those states, the difference in enrollment rates was within 5%. At the other end, in eight states the enrollment disparity exceeded 15%.  One of them was Oregon.

Pamplin Media’s analysis of state enrollment data confirms that gap. Over the last two years, statewide public school enrollment has held at roughly 60% white, 24% Latino, nearly 7% multiracial, 4% Asian and a little over 2% Black in Oregon. In the same period, at the public online schools that report enrollment by race and ethnicity, the number of students identified as white held steady at just over 75% of total enrollment, Latino about 12%, Asian 2%, Black and multiracial both at less than 2%.

The COVID-related enrollment boost at those schools didn’t change the racial/ethnic patterns. White enrollment climbed by 5,483 students last year, amounting to 76% of their combined overall increase of 7,212.

While Oregon education officials say they aren’t tracking the impact of distance learning on enrollment disparities, the subject came up this spring in the hearing about online schools. 

“These programs do not serve a demographically diverse student body, fail to have robust English learner programs, and have dismal educational outcomes (one graduated just 33% of its seniors last year),” said OEA lobbyist Laurie Wimmer in written testimony. “We believe that equity issues abound: in access, program quality, and services to enrollees, to say nothing of logistics for students whose parents are unable to provide in-home oversight and assistance because of language barriers (materials are exclusively in English) and the need to work outside the home.”

Gordon Lafer, a University of Oregon professor who has researched online charter schools for an anti-privatization think tank in California, said his research in that state mirrored that of Pamplin Media Group, showing online charter school students were disproportionately white.

But disparities are more fundamental, he said.

“One of the biggest things is that the model for online charter schools is that you need to have a parent as, in many ways, the primary instructor,” he said. “Many low-income families don’t have a parent who can stay home. So there’s a kind of inequality built into how the system is supposed to work.”

The biggest inequity, he said, is that online schools receive almost the same per-student revenue and teach fewer special-needs children or English-language learners. Their cost structure runs an estimated 45% to 70% of what a brick-and-mortar school costs, Lafer said.

In effect, he said, significant per-student funding is being siphoned off for a group of students who need it less, leaving the remaining funding to be divvied up among a needier student population — meaning larger class-sizes and fewer services.

Heather Engelhardt, an assistant principal for Willamette Connections Academy, told the Pamplin Media Group that took issue with some of the numbers used by critics.

She said the Oregon Education Association testimony noting low graduation rates at several public online charter schools like hers failed to look at the kinds of students they educate.

“We serve students across Oregon and support a unique demographic of highly mobile students,” she said.

She added that her school trains staff in diversity and equity, offers trauma-informed counseling, and provides individualized instruction, free computers and subsidized internet.

Dealing with inequity?

In the past, state education officials have warned school districts that some online curricula employ algorithms that could increase disparities.

So given the rise of online learning and online charter school enrollment, what is Oregon Department of Education doing to formulate new initiatives or oversight?

State officials offered no specifics, saying only that they intend to continue ensuring equitable, quality education.

John Larson, president of the Oregon Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, said state officials should be maximizing the potential benefits of online charter schools, such as by allowing online courses to be integrated into brick-and-mortar school programs and ensure that virtual teaching is effective and inclusive.

“Oregon should demand to examine online platforms and materials, just as it does with textbooks,” he said. “It should ensure equity of access and higher quality programming. It should protect student privacy from data mining in these virtual schools.”

Lafer agrees, pointing to legislation in California that would beef up oversight and restrictions on online charter schools.

Hamilton, for his part, admits that one reason his family left public schools was that Tigard-Tualatin School District’s eliminated letter grades during the pandemic, and instead went to a pass-fail system to adapt to the challenges.

Not only that, but with Price’s mother, Kristin, overseeing teaching as a learning “coach,” Price is able to learn at his own pace without having to deal with less-advanced students who slow the class down.

Because his son is shy and well-behaved, he “would essentially be ignored … now he feels empowered, and the conversations he has are all about learning.”

Hamilton said he understands the concerns about equity, saying his son’s online school “does require somebody in the home.”

That said, he thinks parents need to be involved either way, whether to get their kid out of bed or on the bus.

“There always has to be an adult somewhere involved,” he said.

Mann, the University of Kansas professor who studies online charters, said in a public school system there needs to be a balance between not standing in the way of students excelling, but also helping others so they don’t fall too far behind.

Students who thrive in online school “may find something they didn’t have before. I don’t think that’s a bad thing,” Mann said.

Several Black teenagers echoed that perspective in comments for a recent article posted on NorthJersey.com, saying they appreciated that online learning offered freedom from the insensitivity and racism of white students.

At the same time, Mann said, “We have a lot of people who did not thrive in the online setting.… We’ve got to make sure we get it right in terms of a balance.”

 Despite concerns over the role of for-profit companies and the underrepresentation of students of color in on-line charter schools, state education officials recognize that remote learning is not going anywhere.

“Online learning has been a growing part of the education landscape for over a decade,” said Ken Greenbaum, the Oregon Department of Education’s Director of Digital Learning and Education Technology, in an email. “We know that it will continue to be a significant component of public education in the future.”