Oregon Connections Academy: another failing online charter school

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Oregon Connections Academy (ORCA), an online statewide charter school with 153 teachers serving about 4500 students, has been placed on the state’s a federally mandated improvement list.

I’m not surprised.

I took a close look at ORCA in 2017 and it was clear the school had problems, but I figured things might get better. They haven’t.

Just look at the numbers.

Only 21.9 percent of tested students at the school met or exceeded  math standards in 2018-2019, down from an already abysmal 22.7% in 2017-18.

English language arts (ELA) achievement has been poor, too. Only 41.8% of tested students met or exceeded ELA standards in 2018-2019 and an average of just 42.8% met or exceeded the standards over the past three school years.

School attendance is dreadful as well. Regular attendance during the 2018-19 school year was only 63.4%, and an average of 59.7% over the past three school years. That indicates chronic absenteeism. In 2018 – 2019, just 71% of the school’s students attended more than 90% of their enrolled school days.

Then there are graduation rates and college attendance. Graduation rates at all Oregon public schools, including virtual charters, are calculated the same way by the Oregon Department of Education (ODE) as an “adjusted cohort graduation rate.” That rate is the percentage of all students who graduate from high school with a diploma within a four-year cohort period after they start 9th grade.

Only 57.1% of students in ORCA’s 2014-15 cohort graduated in four years and an average of 61.1% in the past three school years. There was no improvement with students in ORCA’s 2015-16 cohort, who were seniors in 2018-2019. Only 57% of those students graduated in four years.

 

Oregon 2014-15 Cohort Rates for Students Entering High School in 2011-12: 73.82%

Oregon 2017-18 Cohort Rates for Students Entering High School in 2014-15: 78.70%

 

And of ORCA’s graduates, only 41% enrolled in a two or four year college within one year of completing high school, as reported by the National Student Clearinghouse.

WHY DOES OREGON TOLERATE THIS?

ORCAgraduation

An Oregon Connections Academy graduation ceremony

ORCA’s performance fits with national statistics for online charter schools. Nearly three-quarters of students enrolled in virtual charters are attending a high school where fewer than half graduate in four years, according to an analysis by the Education Week Research Center.

I’ve written before about Oregon’s virtual public charter schools. New data reveals that Oregon Connections Academy, and Oregon’s public virtual charter schools as a whole, are still failing their students and the parents who enroll them.

Despite that truth, the schools, also called cyber and online schools, are multiplying like fruit flies. Supporters are intoxicated by their potential and doubters are being pummeled as technical Neanderthals unwilling to accept change.

Virtual charters have taken root across the country and continue to grow, though at a slower rate than in the past.

They are part of a movement that is exploding across the country and enjoys the support of President Donald Trump. Trump has called school choice “the civil rights issue of our time” and appointed Betsy DeVos, a fierce advocate of charter schools, Secretary of Education.

“Families want and deserve access to all educational options, including charter schools, private schools and virtual schools,” DeVos said in 2015, before becoming Secretary.

On June 13, 2017, after being confirmed as Secretary of Education, DeVos told the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, “…as a nation, we are simply not doing a good enough job educating our kids. A system that denies parents the freedom to choose the education that best suits their children’s individual and unique needs denies them a basic human right. It is un-American, and it is fundamentally unjust.”

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Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos (R) with President Donald Trump

But the evidence clearly shows that within the charter school movement, the virtual charter industry is not “all about the kids.”

The growth of full-time public virtual charter schools in Oregon offers a case study of a misplaced faith in choice and technology.

ORCA, based in Mill City, is Oregon’s largest public virtual charter school. As noted earlier, its current enrollment is given as about 4500, but that number fluctuates throughout the school year.  On Oct. 1, 2015, for example, the standard date for calculating charter school enrollment in Oregon, ORCA said it had 3,789 enrolled students. But 950 students left during the school year, and others enrolled. At one point during the year, total enrollment went as high as 5,631. At the end of the school year, 4035 students were enrolled.

CLASHING SENTIMENTS

Students, parents and teachers both praise and assail ORCA.

“All in all, ORCA is a fantastic educational experience for those who don’t fit the mold for brick and mortar schools,” a student told a school rating organization.

“This was the perfect fit for our family!,” Andrea Potter Kruse posted on Facebook. “My son was bored in class and getting into trouble. There was horrible communication from the school. We made the switch and my son is loving school again.”

“…my kiddo used to hide in the back of the class and not participate during lessons,” SC wrote about ORCA on Sitejabber. “He’s currently getting the best education of his life. It works for us.”

“Our daughter…has lost motivation and doesn’t really seem to care,” Alyssa E. commented about ORCA on Sitejabber. “At this point, she does the least amount required, which is essentially a lot of busy work and multiple-choice questions.. The teachers are limited by the horrible interface and limitations of the online learning platform. Connections Academy is essentially the K-12 equivalent of the troubled for-profit colleges.”

“Unless your child…has zero interest in doing anything but sitting at the computer for 7-10 hours a day, then I really don’t think this is what you are looking for as an alternative to regular school,” said a parent. “Don’t do this to your child!”

Some teachers praise ORCA for having a hardworking professional staff, flexible schedules, and a commitment to children first.

Other teachers complain about high student/teacher ratios, a revolving door of employees, poor management and profit-driven policies. “Sometimes the bottom line is the goal and not student achievement,” said one teacher.

Both sides of the virtual charter school debate are fighting a raging propaganda war that is almost Darwinian in nature.

Virtual charter champions churn out a torrent of supportive stories, arguing that traditional schools are relics and choice wouldn’t be so necessary if traditional public schools hadn’t utterly failed to meet the needs of children.

Critics argue just as vociferously that the online schools rob traditional brick and mortar public schools of students and public money, lack accountability, exacerbate inequalities of opportunity and worst of all, fail to educate.

IN THE BEGINNING

The public charter school movement in the U.S. has moved quickly from the margins to the mainstream.

Minnesota passed the first state public charter school law in the United States in 1991. The first charter school opened 25 years ago in St. Paul, Minnesota in September 1992.

Still, the virtual public charter sector barely existed in the United States prior to 2000, but it has grown rapidly since then. The siren song of technology as an education savior, particularly for disaffected students who want a non-traditional school setting, is proving irresistible to many parents and children.

Since enacting a charter school law in 1999, Oregon has become home to 21 virtual public charter schools, according to the Oregon Department of Education:

Virtual Public Charter School

School District Sponsor

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Baker Web Academy

Baker SD 5J

Cascade Virtual Academy

Mitchell SD

Clackamas Web Academy

page1image3151288656North Clackamas SD 12

Crater Lake Charter Academy

Eagle Point SD 9

Dallas Community School

Dallas SD 2

Destinations Career Academy of Oregon

page1image3151234976Mitchell SD 55

Fossil Charter School

Fossil SD 21J

Frontier Charter Academy

Gervais SD 1

Insight School of Oregon-Painted Hills

Mitchell SD

Metro East Web Academy

Gresham-Barlow SD 10J

Oregon Connections Academy

page1image3151253920Santiam Canyon SD

Oregon Family School

Harney County SD 4

Oregon Virtual Academy

North Bend SD 13

Oregon Virtual Education

Scio SD 95

Paisley School

Paisley SD 11

Sheridan AllPrep Academy

Sheridan SD 48J

Silvies River Charter School

Frenchglen SD 16

Summit Learning Charter

Estacada SD 108

TEACH-NW

Marcola SD 79J

West Lane Technology Learning Center

Fern Ridge SD 28J

Willamette Connections Academy

Scio SD 95

SHOW ME THE MONEY

Charter schools in Oregon, including virtual charters, are publicly funded, so parents don’t pay tuition. Instead, the Oregon Department of Education distributes State School Fund money to each school district that sponsors a charter school.

Oregon law provides that a sponsoring district must pass on to its charter school at least 80 percent of its per-pupil grant for K-8 students and 95 percent of its per pupil grant for grade 9-12 students.

The system leads to big disparities among sponsoring districts in what they keep and what they pass on to the charter schools. This, in turn, can lead to “sponsor shopping” by charter school operators looking for maximum financial return and minimum oversight.

Ohio once encountered an egregious example of sponsor shopping. Charter school operators there that failed to get authorized or renewed by one sponsor simply shopped around for another.

“It’s been too easy for bad schools to find accommodating sponsors to keep them going…at least partly because sponsors in Ohio have earned fees for selling services to schools even when the schools in their portfolio produce poor results,” wrote two charter school supporters, Alan Rosskamm, CEO of Breakthrough Charter Schools, and Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Under ORCA’s 2005 contract with its initial sponsor, the Scio School District, Scio kept 10 percent of the State School Fund money it received for ORCA students in grades K-8 and 5 percent of the money it received for students in grades 9-12.

In 2005-2006, that translated into $311,358, half of which Scio had to send to the home districts of its ORCA students under Oregon’s charter law at the time.

As ORCA’s enrollment grew, so did the amount of State School Fund money retained by Sic. In the 2014-15 school year, the Scio district retained $1,886,498.34, half of which it had to send to the home districts of its ORCA students.

Scio was ecstatic to see the ORCA money rolling in and looking forward to the windfall continuing.

But while the Scio District and ORCA were in the midst of negotiations on a new contract, ORCA unexpectedly jumped ship. Abandoning Scio, ORCA signed a new contract with the nearby Santiam Canyon School District. The contract began with the 2015-2016 school year.

ORCA’s switch left the Scio School District perplexed and bitter. Not only was ORCA’s departure a shock, but it meant a big hit to Scio’s budget. Scio School District Superintendent Gary Tempel called the revenue loss “devastating” to the tiny district. But the switch was a bonanza for Santiam Canyon.

Charter schools have become cash cows for many school districts that sponsor them. This is even more true since the Oregon Legislature amended the charter school law in 2015 to eliminate the requirement that the sponsoring districts send half of the money they earned back to the home districts of their students. So Santiam Canyon got to keep all of the State School Fund money it held back.

Why, out of Oregon’s 197 school districts, did ORCA decide to switch to Santiam Canyon?

It was probably no coincidence that Todd A. Miller, appointed superintendent of the Santiam Canyon District in July 2013, served as ORCA’s executive director from April 2011 – June 2013.

The other key factor was likely money.

Instead of insisting on the same deal Scio had with ORCA, the Santiam Canyon district agreed to keep just 1 percent of the State School Fund money it received for ORCA.

ORCA also agreed to pay the district a 3.5 percent management fee to support things such as state reporting, business services, special education and other support services, but the payoff to ORCA (and Scio) was still substantial.

In 2014-15, Scio had retained $1,886,498 of the State School Fund money it received because of its sponsorship of ORCA. In 2015-16, Santiam Canyon retained just $1,362,272.49 of the State School Fund money it received because of its ORCA sponsorship. Not only did Santiam Canyon come out ahead because it didn’t have to share any of its money with the home districts of ORCA’s students, but ORCA paid its sponsor $532,235 less with the switch.

Miller defended the deal. “This fee structure does pass through more funds to ORCA than they previously received, yet the school board and I felt this arrangement was balanced for both of us and helped them add additional services to support struggling students,” Miller said.

REELING THEM IN

Oregon started with tough charter school enrollment restrictions.

The state’s charter law initially required that 80 percent of a public charter school’s student body live in the sponsor’s district and that no more than 10 percent of a district’s students could go to a charter school.

Those restrictions, however, lasted only five years. Charter schools can now recruit throughout the state with no limits.

ORCA is particularly aggressive in recruiting new students. Oregonians would be hard pressed to miss the ubiquitous ORCA television ads promoting the school.

The ads, which don’t even use the words “charter school,” are persuasive blends of Wall Street and Madison Avenue that fit right in with Connections Academy’s profit-driven culture.

The result has been a rapid expansion of enrollment at ORCA and other Oregon virtual charters.

Even though I said earlier that ORCA has about 4500 students, it’s actually hard to pin down exactly how many students attend Oregon’s virtual public charter schools at any given time. That’s because enrollment fluctuates wildly during and between school years, with some students going back and forth like ping pong balls.

“Many families enroll in virtual school for a short period of time to address a short-term issue or challenge, academically, socially or personally,” said Allison Galvin, ORCA’s executive director. “Once the family has navigated through the issue, they may decide to return to their previous school. Other families may find online school the perfect fit and remain enrolled.”

ORCA’s NEST

The original vision for Oregon’s charter schools was that they would be small, locally run institutions that would be innovative and flexible. But over time the virtual charter system has become profit-propelled and the structure has changed.

ORCA is a prime example of that. The school is like the smallest wooden figure in a classic Russian matryoshka doll, where wooden dolls nestle one inside the other.

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ORCA is a not- for-profit corporation governed by a Board of Directors.

The Board has a Professional Services Agreement with a for-profit company, Connections Academy of Oregon, LLC (CAO), to operate and manage the school, under the direction of the Board of Directors.

CAO is a wholly owned subsidiary of Connections Education LLC (CE), a MD-based for-profit. CE is a division of UK-based Pearson PLC (LSE:PSON; NYSE: PSO), which reported annual revenue of $5.511 billion in 2018.

Critics of outsourcing the management of charter schools to companies like Pearson argue that it siphons off already limited school resources for service fees, profits, other layers of administration and costly marketing programs, such as television ads and online campaigns.

ACADEMIC NON-PERFORMANCE

ORCA says its curriculum “develops critical thinking and problem-solving skills” and “builds a solid foundation in reading, writing, and mathematics.”

ORCA says that in a 2019 Parent Satisfaction Survey, families gave the school high marks,  A high level of 95 percent of the parents agreed that the program’s curriculum is high quality and that their child is satisfied with the program.

But if they looked closely at academic performance data, parents and students might not be so pleased.

ORCA may offer a superior option for some students, but for many students it does not.

This is consistent with a 2016 national study of virtual charter schools which concluded, “Multiple or expanded measures of school performance reveal that virtual school outcomes continued to lag significantly behind that of traditional brick-and-mortar schools.”

Standard test results for ORCA back that up.

ORCA officials said any evaluation of their academic performance needs to take into account that ORCA takes on many students who stumbled at their former traditional brick-and-mortar public schools. “We have a huge population of struggling learners,” Galvin said.

Research bears this out, documenting that students in virtual charter schools are more likely to come from the lower academic segments of traditional brick-and-mortar public schools.

But other research reveals that it’s the struggling learners who are least likely to be well served by online coursework. In other words, while struggling students are the ones most in need of traditional in-person courses, shuttling them off to online schools is exactly what they don’t need.

The same holds true for college students. Research on students taking online college courses indicates that virtual learning is most challenging for the least well-prepared students.

“These students consistently perform worse in an online setting than they do in face-to-face classrooms; taking online courses increases their likelihood of dropping out and otherwise impedes progress through college,concluded a Brookings Institute study on the “Promises and pitfalls of online education.”

Michael Petrilli, Executive Director of the Fordham Institute, made this point in remarks at an Education Commission of the States’ National Forum on Education Policy.

Because full-time virtual schools require “a kid who’s pretty driven, who has a pretty supportive home environment” for the best chance at success, Petrilli argued, “the schools would benefit from more selectivity and individual review of applications to determine fit, which is not now permitted at public virtual charter schools.”

Research on virtual charter school performance outcomes across the country generally paints a distressing picture linked to test-based outcomes.

A report from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University concluded that the majority of virtual charter school students showed poor learning growth in math and reading when compared to comparable students in traditional brick-and-mortar public schools.

The study also highlighted an intriguing finding, that the problem isn’t charter schools per se, but virtual charters. Being an online school matters more than being a charter school, “the report said.The principal impacts of attending an online charter school appear to be primarily driven by the online aspect of the school, rather than the fact it is a charter school.”

A 2017 CREDO report went even further, concluding that charter school operators with a for-profit orientation post significantly lower student academic gains than those with a non-profit status.

Virtual charter school advocates have an unending list of reasons for their poor performance.

Galvin also attributed ORCA’s low graduation rate to many of the students being way behind in credits when they arrived at the school, so bringing them up to speed can be a long and difficult task.

Left unsaid is that the transfer of many of these students to ORCA may, in a perverse sort of way, help the traditional public schools they come from. That’s because it removes academically struggling students from the rolls, improving graduation rates.

Research suggests this is a national problem.

“School officials nationwide dodge accountability ratings by steering low achievers to alternative programs,” ProPublica, an independent, nonprofit newsroom, has reported.

“When low achieving students leave, for instance, average school test scores increase,” said a report from the California Legislative Analysts’s Office. “This gives the appearance that the school is improving, and it allows the school to focus on the education needs of the more motivated students that remain. In addition, when students marked as ‘problems’ or ‘trouble makers’ drop out, they relieve educators of administrative headaches. As a result, inattention to the needs of these types of students can actually make schools appear more successful.”

COMPUTING ALONE

In E.M. Forster’s 1909 dystopian story “The Machine Stops,” people live alone in small solitary rooms deep under the surface of the earth. Relying on “the Machine” to keep the technology running that allows them to survive, they connect, though rarely, via a Skype-like function on a blue optic plate.

Virtual education can be like that for young people, alienating and isolating.

“A real course creates intellectual joy, at least in some,” Mark Edmundson, a professor of English at the University of Virginia, wrote in a New York Times column. “I don’t think an Internet course ever will. Internet learning promises to make intellectual life more sterile and abstract than it already is — and also, for teachers and for students alike, far more lonely.”

Some assume that virtual schooling for K-12 students must be appropriate and effective because it’s already been proven to work in higher education.

But even in higher education, there are doubts about the suitability of virtual instruction because of its focus on the individual rather than the group. “Learning at its best is a collective enterprise, something we’ve known since Socrates,” Edmundson wrote.

Studies show that the vast majority of students in online K-12 schools suffer because of isolation and the lack of a structured learning environment with required classroom attendance.

Then there’s the question of whether virtual charter schools that take students away from the daily face-to-face interaction of traditional public schools are exacerbating the fraying of the social fabric. That trend was explained in “Bowling Alone”, Robert Putnam’s provocative writing on civic disengagement in the United States.

A powerful tide that once pulled Americans into deep engagement in their communities reversed itself in the late 20th century and has pulled us apart from one another and our communities, Putnam wrote. The result is a society of isolated individuals deficient in social capital.

A “Social Capital Project” report prepared by the staff of a Congressional Committee observed that as Americans interact less with each other, particularly with people outside their immediate circle of family and friends, we trust those outside that circle less. But building broad relationships is exactly what’s needed to collectively develop community, the feeling of being part of something bigger than our close personal network.

In other words, k-12 virtual schooling may be one of the things compromising the health of America’s associational life.

 THE VERDICT IS IN

 The Center for Education Reform, a school choice advocacy group, said recently that the evolution of the charter school movement “…elevated educational choice to its current state as an invaluable good and an essential component of public education.”

Not so fast.

The charter school movement overall may have made significant gains, but the rapid, almost unrestrained, expansion of K-12 virtual charter schools is showing itself to be a mistake.

A 2015 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development study found that technology use could positively impact student learning, but only if used in moderation. Overexposure to computers and the Internet actually causes educational outcomes to drop, the study found.

“Students who use computers very frequently at school do much worse, even accounting for social background and student demographics,” the report said.

Similarly, a RAND Corporation study found that students with low test scores who enrolled in online-only schools tended to fall even further behind, rather than recover loses.

At the same time, the movement of big business into the cyber charter school movement is revealing a questionable embrace of for-profit over non-profit public institutions.

What started as individualized efforts by non-profits to serve small, centralized groups of students online has morphed into a huge national business. Already, about 70 percent of students enrolled in virtual charters across the U.S. are attending schools managed by big for-profit companies such as Connections Academy and K12 Inc.

The desire for school choice is understandable, but numerous studies have concluded that full-time virtual charter schools are not the right option for many K-12 students.

“Current online charter schools may be a good fit for some students, but the evidence suggests that online charters don’t serve very well the relatively atypical set of students that currently attend these schools, much less the general population,” said Stanford’s CREDO in a report. “Academic benefits from online charter schools are currently the exception rather than the rule.”

In the same vein, a 2017 report from the Colorado-based National Education Policy Center (NEPC) concluded, “There is…little high-quality systematic evidence that the rapid expansion of (virtual charter schools) the past several years is wise. Research has …consistently found that students enrolled in full-time virtual schools have performed at levels well below their face-to-face counterparts.”

A Fordham Institute study of virtual charter schools reached similar conclusions. “Online schools offer an efficient way to diversify—and even democratize—education in a connected world,” the study said. “Yet they have received negative, but well-deserved, attention concerning their poor academic performance, attrition rates, and ill capacity to educate the types of students who enroll in them.”

The National Education Association (NEA), never hesitant to raise doubts about charter schools, has piled on, too. In July 2017, 7,000 delegates to the NEA’s Annual Meeting approved a policy statement calling for prohibitions on for-profit charter school operations. “…virtual charter schools are never an appropriate part of the public education system as they cannot provide students with a well-rounded, complete educational experience,” the NEA said.

In 2019, The National Education Policy Center cited “the overwhelming evidence of poor performance by full-time virtual…schools”  and recommended: Slow or stop the growth in the number of virtual schools and the size of their enrollments until the reasons for their relatively poor performance have been identified and addressed.”

There’s even an antagonistic split within the charter school sector.

While brick-and mortar and virtual charter schools may be at the same dance, they’re engaged in an increasingly hostile pas de deux.

For a significant number of “students who are attending full-time, fully online schools, the outcomes are pretty devastating,” M. Karega Rausch, vice president of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, told attendees at a 2017 panel at an Education Commission of the States’ National Forum on Education Policy.

Other national charter school advocates have also blasted the virtual charter schools sector for chronic underperformance.

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the 50-State Campaign for Achievement Now (50CAN) and the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) has reported that “…too many of these (full-time virtual charter) schools are not providing a quality educational program to the vast majority of their students, while enrolling too many who are simply not a good fit for attending a fully online school.”

Their report emphasized:

  • “The well-documented, disturbingly low performance by too many full-time virtual charter public schools should serve as a call to action to state leaders and authorizers across the country.
  • It is time for state leaders to make the tough policy changes necessary to ensure that this model works more effectively than it currently does for the students it serves.
  • It is also time for authorizers to close chronically low-performing virtual charter schools.”

There’s also concern that virtual-charters are siphoning off money from other public schools, particularly some that are already in serious financial trouble.

“Some will argue that because we’re not serving those students, the loss of funding shouldn’t be an issue,” said Beth Graser, the Hillsboro School District’s Communications Director. But because those students don’t leave in perfect sets of 30, all from the same grade and the same school, it doesn’t really reduce our costs because we still have to maintain the same levels of staffing and other services.”

Pulling money out of traditional brick and mortar public schools to support virtual charters is thought by many critics to be especially egregious when some of that money goes not to education, but to for-profit management companies.

Oregon’s charter funding rules are also reason for concern.

With the potential for wide variations in sponsoring district fees and levels of oversight, it can be lucrative for virtual charters to go sponsor shopping.

In addition, school districts, particularly small struggling ones that are supposed to oversee the charters they sponsor, have a strong financial incentive to provide more lenient oversight and to ignore problems that might jeopardize the charter’s payments to the district.

Another issue is the wide disparity in amounts of state school fund money sponsoring districts are skimming off the top, leaving varying amounts for actually educating students.

The only groups finding positive results for full-time virtual charters, “have been advocacy organizations supporting charter schools and school choice—and the for-profit corporations operating many virtual schools,” the NEPC claims.

Even though charter schools are public, the movement is being driven, in part, by a loss of faith in traditional public institutions.

A recent Gallup survey reported that Americans have very low confidence in many major institutions. Education has taken a particularly hard hit. While per-pupil expenditures at K-12 schools have been rising, public confidence has been falling. According to Gallup, only 29% of Americans have a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the public schools, down from 58 percent in 1973.

Nevertheless, it’s clear that virtual charter schools, given their track record and use of public money, are not the answer.

The market alone cannot be relied upon to provide quality control over virtual charter schools. As Chester Finn Jr., President Emeritus at the Fordham Institute, put it, operating on the principal that quality is in the eye of the beholder, and ignoring school outcomes, is “idiocy,”. “It arises from the view—long since dismissed by every respectable economist—that education is a private good and the public has no interest in an educated citizenry.”

“Once you conclude that education is also a public good—one whose results bear powerfully on our prosperity, our safety, our culture, our governance, and our civic life—you have to recognize that voters and taxpayers have a compelling interest in whether kids are learning what they should, at least in schools that call themselves ‘public,’ “ Finn said.

Despite serious reservations about the efficacy of K-12 virtual charter schools and reams of data calling into question their impact versus brick-and-mortar traditional public schools and even brick-and mortar charter schools, there’s almost sycophantic adoration of the schools by the parents of many attendees and families are increasingly turning to them for their children’s education.

It may be because the debate about virtual charter schools is more about people’s values than academic performance. To a lot of parents and students, virtual charters are really about independence, bonding with like-minded parents, having the option of choice, and escaping from what are perceived as stifling, monopolistic government bureaucracies.

Living in a cocoon of misinformation, they’re not interested in contrary data. And as neuroscientist Tali Sharot observed in her book, “The Influential Mind,” it is hard to convince people with just data. When presented with hard evidence that contradicts their deeply held beliefs, people often work overtime to find reasons to defend those beliefs rather than modify them.

In the 2017 book issued by the Center for Education Reform, the authors argued that these parents should be trusted to make good decisions for their children. “We believe that parents (who see their child come home from school every day) are better able than bureaucrats (who see mostly standardized tests scores) to judge the quality of the school they’ve chosen,” they said.

But the fact is that many K-12 virtual charter schools are like tribute bands, just a facsimile of real education.

Relying solely on the presumed wisdom of the parents to determine the suitability of virtual charter schools is a grievous mistake with potentially damaging consequences for Oregon’s, and America’s, children.

 

 

                                                         

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The union campaign at Burgerville: a quixotic quest

burgervillestrike

Local news is replete with stories about the failure of contract negotiations between Burgerville and the Burgerville Workers Union ands the threat of a worker strike, but most are failing to point out a critical fact — only 111 Burgerville employees at a total of five of the company’s 47 locations have even voted to form a union.

Furthermore, of the 142 employees who were working in those five locations during their respective votes, only 94 of them were still employed at Burgerville as of mid-2019 and the lead organizers of the unionizing effort at three of the five restaurants no longer worked at the company

It’s also likely that most of  the employees now threatening an “imminent” strike will not be at Burgerville long-term because the fast-food industry is grappling with record employee turnover.

According to MIT Technology Review, the turnover rate in the fast-food industry is 150%. In other words, the typical fast food restaurant is seeing its entire workforce, plus half of its new hires, replaced in 12 months.

Burgerville is doing better, perhaps because of its expansive benefits, including health insurance, vacation pay and financial wellness training. Still, the annual turnover rate across all its restaurants in 2018 was 83% (up from 71% in 2017), according to the company.

The union has reportedly asked for a $5 hourly increase for all unionized workers; Burgerville has offered a $1 an hour increase for all workers, which would put them 6 months ahead of a state-mandated minimum-wage increase.

The union says Burgerville’s proposed pay raise is “miserly.” Is it?

According to Glassdoor, a website where current and former employees anonymously review companies and anonymously submit and view salaries, average base pay for hourly crew members is currently $12.  When factoring in bonuses and additional compensation, a crew member at Burgerville can expect to make an average annual salary of $25,298.

For comparison, the typical McDonald’s crew member makes $9 per hour, according to Glassdoor. When factoring in bonuses and additional compensation, a crew member at McDonald’s can expect to make an average annual salary of $19,242.

The typical Wendy’s Crew Member makes $9 per hour., Glassdoor says.  When factoring in bonuses and additional compensation, a Crew Member at Wendy’s can expect to make an average annual salary of $18,738.

In other words, the average hourly pay of Burgerville crew members is already higher than at key competitors.

Could Burgerville afford to pay its employees more? It’s a private company owned by The Holland Inc., so it doesn’t make its financials public. The economy is strong, however, and the fast-food, or quick service restaurant (QSR), industry in the United States, has been doing well, particularly in 2018 and 2019. Workers have reason to believe Burgerville has benefited.

I understand workers’ desire to share in America’s prosperity, but any increase in wages crunches the bottom line and in a highly competitive marketplace only some of additional labor costs can be passed on to price sensitive consumers. The preferred solution for many fast-food businesses is reducing, not increasing, labor costs, largely by leveraging technology to employ fewer people.

Then, of course, there’s the question of whether the union’s demand for “a living wage” at Burgerville is even realistic.

According to a Living Wage Calculator developed by MIT, A living wage is the hourly rate that an individual in a household must earn to support his or herself and their family. The assumption is that the sole provider is working full-time (2080 hours per year).

The Calculator says a living wage for two adults, with one working, and one child in Multnomah County is $26.06 an hour or $54,205 a year. It is delusional to think Burgerville will pay that much to an easily replaceable crew member with limited skills and an expected short tenure.

The fact is, rather than pushing for unattainable wages at Burgerville, current crew members would be better off enhancing their job skills and/or education to qualify for higher paying employment elsewhere.

Who cares about people 7000 miles away?

“Let Syria and Assad protect the Kurds and fight Turkey for their own land. I said to my Generals, why should we be fighting for Syria and Assad to protect the land of our enemy? Anyone who wants to assist Syria in protecting the Kurds is good with me, whether it is Russia, China, or Napoleon Bonaparte. I hope they all do great, we are 7,000 miles away!”

President Donald Trump, Oct. 14, 2019

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Is President Trump arguing that far away countries are not worth America’s attention?

  • Should the U.S. ignore the freedom seekers in Hong Kong?

Distance from Washington, D.C. to Hong Kong: 8,140 miles

DCtoHongKong

  • Should the U.S. have avoided confronting Hitler?

Distance from Washington to Berlin: 4,167 miles

DCtoBerlin

  • Should the U.S. ignore the threat posed by Russia?

Distance from Washington to Moscow: 4,857 miles

DCtoMoscow

  • Should the U.S. have allowed North Korea and the People’s Republic of China to take over South Korea?

Distance from Washington to Seoul: 6,933 miles

DCtoSeoul

  • Should the U.S. have skipped the North African campaign in WWII

Distance from Washington to Tobruk, Libya: 5,386 miles

DCtoTobruk

  • Should the U.S. abandon Israel?

Distance from Washington to Jerusalem: 5,897 miles

DCtoJurusalem

  • Should the U.S. ignore the threats posed by the People’s Republic of China? (the only one actually about 7,000 miles away)

Distance from Washington, D.C.to Beijing: 6,928.42 miles

DCtoBeijing

Remind you of anything?

America_First_Rally_flyer_April_4_1941?

 

 

Is foreign ownership of U.S. agricultural land a threat to the U.S.? Elizabeth Warren thinks so.

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Does growing foreign ownership of farmland threaten family farmers, food supply and U.S. national security.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-MA, a leading challenger in the race for the Democratic nomination for president, thinks so.

Warren says she’s so alarmed about foreign ownership of U.S. agricultural land she wants to ban it.

“Foreign companies and foreign countries like China and Saudi Arabia already own 25 million acres of American farmland,” she posted on Medium on March 27, 2019. “That jeopardizes our food security, which threatens our national security, too.”

She certainly has some support among America’s farmers. “Our rural communities are becoming factory farms for foreign corporations,” argues Family Farm Action, a Kansas City-based organization launched in 2017 to fight for America’s family farmers and rural communities.

In 2018, family farmers packed a Missouri House hearing room to support bills banning foreign ownership of agricultural land. They emphasized the values of family farmers and the deep connections that make them stewards of their land and communities. Foreign-owned companies don’t care about the community because they are so far removed from it, they argued.

“I would hate to see what our forefathers would think of us brokering our American soil off to foreign countries,” said Missouri farmer Terry Spence.

Land law is generally state law in the United States and state laws vary widely.

As of 2017, Six states had laws banning foreign ownership of farmland: Hawaii, Iowa, Minnesota, Mississippi, North Dakota and Oklahoma.

Oregon’s only restriction was Or. Rev. Stat. §§ 273.255, saying that “Any individual who is 18 years of age or older and who is a citizen of the United States, or has declared an intention to become a citizen, may apply to purchase state lands. “

Warren’s solution? National legislation similar to that enacted in Iowa prohibiting foreign individuals or entities from purchasing farmland for the purchase of farming.

Warren’s acreage figure, drawn from a 2011 Dept. of Agriculture report, is out of date, but it does illustrate a trend.

Foreign investors controlled 13.7 million acres of U.S. farmland in 2004. By 2014, total U.S. farmland under foreign investors’ control was 27.3 million acres, more than twice the level in 2004 and about the size of Tennessee.

By 2016 it was at least 28.3 million acres, according to a report by The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting using data filed pursuant to the 1978 Agricultural Foreign Investment Disclosure Act (AFIDA).  7 U.S.C. 3501 et seq. A thorough review of current law on foreign investment of U.S. agricultural land can be found in the Drake Journal of Agricultural Law: Acquisition and Disposition of U.S. Agricultural Land by Foreign Investors: Federal and State Legislative Restrictions, Limitations, and Disclosure Requirements.

Foreign investors acquired at least 1.6 million acres of U.S. agricultural land in 2016, the largest increase in more than a decade, according to the Midwest Center.

The Disclosure Act requires that foreign owners who acquire, sell or gain interest in U.S. agricultural land must file disclosure paperwork, known as the FSA-153 form, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency.

In May 2019, Newsweek made it all sound like the sky is falling, “American farmland is increasingly being bought up by outside investors,” Newsweek wrote. “As NPR noted in a recent report, nearly 30 million acres of U.S. farmland were held by foreign investors in 2015, nearly double the acres owned by foreign investors a decade before.”

That may sound threatening, but the fact is only 2.2 percent of U.S. agricultural land is foreign owned.

And while Warren’s criticism of foreign ownership of agricultural land emphasizes the food security issue, most of that foreign-owned agricultural land is forestland, with pastureland next and then cropland.

The Midwest Center has found that timber companies and renewable energy companies are the biggest group of foreign investors.

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For example, EDP Renewables, a Portuguese renewable energy company, and Enel Green Power, an Italian renewable energy company, both control significant swaths of farmland through long-term leases, according to the Center.

In highlighting Saudi Arabia and China, Warren is also overplaying their role in U.S. farmland ownership, probably to make it appear more threatening.

In truth, Canadian investors owned the most U.S. agricultural land nationwide (6.87 million acres) in 2016, followed by The Netherlands (4.87 million acres) and Germany (1.94 million acres). Chinese investors owned 240,000 acres of U.S. farmland., and Saudi Arabian investors even less, just 35,731 acres, according to The Midwest Center.

The state with the most foreign ownership and investment in 2016 was Maine, which had 3.1 million acres that are foreign-controlled, followed closely by Texas at 3 million acres. Alabama, at 1.6 million acres, Washington, at 1.5 million acres, and Michigan, at 1.3 million acres, rounded out the top five, according to the Midwest Center’s analysis.

Oregon was way down the list, with just 315 plots of agricultural land totaling 792,864 acres under foreign ownership out of a total of about 15.9 million acres of agricultural land. That’s about 5%.

Warren seems to have a plan for just about everything. In this case, her plan is wrong. Foreign ownership of agricultural land in the United States or Oregon isn’t a crisis by any stretch of the imagination, no matter how much Warren wants to make it one.

Political appointees as U.S ambassadors: a recipe for failure

President Trump clearly doesn’t believe the European Union  and its 28 member countries are important enough to have a trained career diplomat serve as the U.S. Ambassador to the large and complex organization.

Instead, Trump’s man in Brussels is Portland businessman Gordon Sondland, the Founder and CEO of Portland-based Provenance Hotels, which owns and/or operates 19 hotels in seven U.S. states and has another six hotels currently under development.

The New York Times reported on Oct. 16, 2019, “Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, was a potential national security risk because he was so unprepared for his job, an ex-White House adviser said privately to impeachment investigators.”

Fiona Hill, one of Trump’s former top foreign policy advisers who testified earlier this week, told lawmakers that she considered Sondland to be a national security risk because of his inexperience, a naiveté that she thought foreign bad actors could easily exploit.

sondland

Gordon Sondland

According to OpenSecrets, which tracks money in politics, Sondland is a major Republican donor and bundler. He has given more than $446,000 to federal candidates and groups, 94 percent of which went to Republican causes. After Trump won, he funneled $1 million into Trump’s inaugural committee through four different LLCs.

The U.S. Department off State doesn’t even bother to emphasize Sondland’s experience in international diplomacy in his biography, choosing, instead, to start off with a description of his background that reads more like a promotional brochure for Provenance Hotels:

Ambassador Sondland is the Founder and CEO of Provenance Hotels, a national owner and operator of full-service boutique “lifestyle” hotels.  Provenance and its affiliates (founded in 1985), currently own and/or operate 19 hotels in seven states and have another six hotels currently under development.  Provenance creates unique, independent full-service, urban hotels, each with their own design, story and closely associated art collection.  The Company employs over 1,000 associates between its hotels and its Portland headquarters.  The Company has received critical acclaim for its hotels from such varied publications as The New York Times, Conde Nast, Travel and Leisure, and many other national and international publications.

You almost expect the bio to end with a link to Sondland’s hotels so you can book a room.

I spent part of my professional career working with the talented people of the U.S. Department of State on international treaties. I assure you there is no substitute for education and training in international affairs and diplomacy. Just as it is a mistake to believe that a businessperson is most qualified to be president because “the country should be run like a business,”  businesspeople are not necessarily naturals in the world of diplomacy.

Sondland’s involvement in sensitive discussions with Ukraine and the chaos that has ensued illustrates the point.

As Edward L. Peck, a former Foreign Service Officer with the U.S. Department oi State, wrote in The Foreign Service Journal.,“Without a doubt, the ability to raise millions of dollars for a presidential campaign is a valuable skill. But rewarding a fundraiser or “bundler” with the job of heading a U.S. embassy reveals total ignorance of what the job entails. Almost unknown outside diplomatic circles, an ambassador’s responsibilities are numerous, complex and important—sometimes critical. And, as with any and all top management positions, they cannot be effectively carried out by beginner.”

But that is who President Trump has been appointing ambassadors in far too many cases – diplomatic beginners.

As of Sept. 26, 2019, there had been 166 ambassadorial appointments under President Trump. Of those, 92 (55.4%) were career and 74 (44.6%) were political appointees. Among Trump’s political appointees are:

  • Jamie D. McCourt, Ambassador to the French Republic and Principality of Monaco: A former Owner, President, and CEO of the Los Angeles Dodgers
mccourt

Jamie D. McCourt (center) being sworn in on November 2, 2017, as the U.S. Ambassador to the French Republic and Principality of Monaco.

  • Robert Wood Johnson, Ambassador to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland/Court of St. James’s: Chairman and CEO of The Johnson Company, New York, NY, a private asset management firm, and Chairman and CEO of the New York Jets football team;
  • Sharon Day, Ambassador to Costa Rica: Worked for more than 20 years for the Republican Party at the local, state, and national level, and most recently in leadership roles as Co-Chair of the Republican National Committee (RNC) and RNC Secretary.
  • Ronald J. Gidwitz, Ambassador to Belgium: Former President and CEO of Helene Curtis, a toiletry and cosmetic manufacturer and marketer.

Many of the political appointees may be accomplished people, but that does not always translate into diplomatic skill.

“The United States has enjoyed a position of unprecedented global leadership in our lifetimes,“ said Barbara J. Stephenson, former President of The American Foreign Service Association. “This leadership was built on a foundation of military might, economic primacy, good governance, tremendous cultural appeal–and diplomatic prowess to channel all that power, hard and soft, into global leadership that has kept us safe and prosperous at home.”

Going forward, the interests of the United States in our troubled world will be best served by ambassadors with diplomatic prowess instead of political connections.

Boeing’s CEO should resign

恥 Haji

BOW

Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) President Masataka Shimizu, center, TEPCO executive Toshio Nishizawa, right, and Vice President Masaru Takei bow during a news conference on its fiscal 2010

Tokyo Electric Power Co. President Masataka Shimizu resigned in disgrace in 2011.  He had been in charge when a tsunami devasted the company’s nuclear plant, endured public criticism for not stepping up in the disaster’s initial days and faced criticism for  the biggest financial losses in the company’s history.

He needed to take responsibility for the crisis.

Boeing’s CEO, Dennis Muiulenburg, should pay attention.

It was during Muilenburg’s watch that Lion Air Flight 610 took off from Jakarta, Indonesia on October 29th, 2018, at 6:20AM local time. Its destination — Pangkal Pinang in Indonesia’s Bangka Belitung Islands. Twelve minutes later, Flight 610 crashed into the Java Sea, killing all 189 passengers and crew.

It was during Muilenburg’s watch that Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 took off from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on March 10th, 2019, at 8:38AM local time. Its destination – Nairobi, Kenya. Six minutes later, Flight 302 crashed near the town of Bishoftu, Ethiopia, killing all 157 passengers and crew.

That’s 346 dead people.

As the planes plummeted down to their doom, seatbelts sliced and shredded internal organs. At impact, arms were torn off, spinal columns broken, brains separated from nerves. Organs flattened against internal cavities and blood poured out of all orifices, even into chest and stomach cavities. Bowels were punctured, so bile filled the space around hearts, lungs, stomach, and other intestines like a can of organ soup. Then, for the plane that hit the ground, there was fire, consuming jet fuel at 800 to 1500 degrees Fahrenheit.*

Masataka Shimizu did the right thing.

“We at Boeing are sorry for the lives lost in the recent 737 accidents,” Muilenburg said. He owes those 346 dead people, their grieving families, their saddened friends and their countries, so much more.

 

*Source: What Happens To Your Body When You Die In A Plane Crash

He’s back: Key player in Oregon securities fraud case resurfaces

Like a bad penny, Guy B. Rencher II, who swindled local investors out of millions during 2000-2001, has reappeared as one of the public faces of a West Linn, OR-based business.

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The October 2019 issue of Lake Oswego Living magazine, produced by N2 Publishing, features a 2-page ”business spotlight”  spread on the local owners of Action Northwest, an exterior home maintenance company. Prominently featured on the first page of the story is a color photo of Guy Rencher, a manager at the company, and his wife, Meadena., the owner.

“We caught up with these good local folks who own and run Action Northwest learn more about their services,” the Lake Oswego Living magazine said.

Good local folks?

That’s not the way a lot of folks defrauded of more than $7 million by Guy B. Rencher II see it.

In 2002, the Oregon Department of Consumer and Business Services (DCBS) filed a civil suit against against Guy Rencher, The Rencher Law Firm LLP, Paul James Peiffer of Aloha and Robert J. Skirving of Portland alleging securities fraud and other violations of Oregon Securities Law. Assistant Attorney General Daniel H. Rosenhouse and Special Assistant Attorney General Caroline L. Smith litigated the case for DCBS.

During 2000 and 2001, Rencher and two associates, Robert Skirving and Paul James Peiffer, sold more than $7 million of illegal investments to multiple investors, promising them high risk-free returns.  Many of the investors were Portland-area residents, and some were clients of Rencher’s law firm. Most invested at least $100,000. Some invested substantially more, $3.5 million in one case.

Investors purchased ownership interests in limited liability companies formed by Rencher and his law firm. Rencher used some investor funds to purchase certificates of deposit issued by a purported off-shore bank called Bank of the Nations, controlled by Peiffer and Skirving, and collected more than $300,000 in “management fees.”

But Rencher, Peiffer and Skirving were running a con game that took advantage of too-trusting people. DCBS officials said the three men were not licensed to sell securities and none of the securities they sold were registered.

On Aug. 6, 2003, Bankruptcy Judge Elizabeth Perris excoriated both Guy Rencher and his wife, Meadena Rencher, for their conduct.

“Debtor has fallen far short of providing complete disclosure, and his failure to do so is attributable to a deliberate and concerted effort to withhold information,” Perris wrote.  “The number and magnitude of the inaccuracies in debtor’s bankruptcy papers are, as the trustee’s attorney said during his opening statement, staggering. This is especially true considering that debtor is an experienced attorney and businessman and that he has had the benefit of being represented by an experienced bankruptcy attorney.”

“Debtor’s conduct leading up to trial was marked by a lack of cooperation and obstructiveness,” Perris added. “At trial, debtor did not directly answer the questions posed to him. Instead, he testified with calculated evasiveness. When debtor did testify directly as to relevant matters, I often found him not to be credible.”

Perris also took Guy Rencher’s wife, Meadena, to task. “Debtor’s wife, Meadena Rencher, also testified at trial,” Perris wrote. “I found her credibility to be equally suspect…I also found Mrs. Rencher’s testimony on other points to be evasive, rehearsed and generally unbelievable.”

On Oct. 15, 2003, Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Frank L. Bearden ordered Guy Rencher, his law firm, Peiffer and Skirving to pay more than $2.3 million in fines and sanctions for scores of fraudulent securities transactions in what Bearden referred to as “a classic Ponzi-type scheme.”

Rencher was also fined $20,000 per violation for each of 16 violations involving misrepresentation to investors. The Rencher Law Firm LLP was fined $5,000 for each of 23 counts of selling unregistered securities. Total Rencher and Rencher law firm fines: $435,000.

The Oregon Department of Justice has not responded to a request for information on payments by Rencher, if any, of the fines ordered by Judge Bearden.

But Guy Rencher, who was already morally bankrupt, has avoided reimbursing the investors deceived by his schemes by filing a chapter 7 bankruptcy petition.

A graduate of Redmond High School in Central Oregon, Rencher started college and then went on a two-year Spanish-speaking mission for the LDS Church in Chicago, according to information he posted on his Redmond High School class of 1970 reunion page. He subsequently graduated from Brigham Young University in 1977 and then Willamette University College of Law. He was admitted to practice in Oregon in 1980.

guyrencher1970

Guy B. Rencher II, Redmond High School, Class of 1970 yearbook photo.

In a Profile he posted to a Redmond High School Class of 1970 website, he wrote: “I mostly practiced law from 1980 in my own small firm in Corvallis and Portland until I retired from law practice in 2002.”

“Retired” hardly told the whole story.

According to the Oregon State Bar, at the time of his resignation from the bar a formal disciplinary proceeding was pending against him for violations of the disciplinary rules involving multiple matters, including:

  • DR 1-102(A)(2) (criminal conduct reflecting adversely on a lawyer’s honesty, trustworthiness or fitness to practice);
  • DR 1-102(A)(3) (dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation); DR 1-103(C) (failure to cooperate with disciplinary authorities);
  • DR 5-101(A) (lawyer self-interest conflict);
  • DR 7-102(A)(3) (concealing or failing to reveal that which the lawyer is required by law to reveal);
  • DR 7-102(A)(5) (knowingly making a false statement of fact);
  • DR 7-106(A) (disregarding a standing rule or ruling of a tribunal);
  • ORS 9.527(1) (commission of an act or course of conduct that would preclude admission) and ORS 9.527(4) (willful deceit).

Guy Rencher’s resignation from the Oregon Bar was accepted by the Oregon Supreme Court effective Dec. 7, 2004. (Rencher was also once registered as a member of the State Bar of Texas, but he has been suspended for an “Administrative” reason and is not eligible to practice in Texas.)

Now living in a $500,000 home in West Linn and working as a manager at Action Northwest (a.k.a. Action Window & Gutter Cleaning, LLC), Guy Rencher appears to have emerged successfully from his transgressions. His investors haven’t been so lucky.

Donald J. and Michelle Yvonne (Shellie) Freund of Lake Tapps, WA, who invested $200,000 with Rencher, filed for bankruptcy in Dec. 2000 and never recovered any of their investment.

Philip Harker of Highland, Utah sought to recover $587,500 invested with Rencher. He recovered $0.

Joy Vandervelden died on Dec. 13, 2002 at age 88, without having recovered any of the $3,350,000 million she invested in Rencher’s scheme.

Even the Oregon Golf Club in West Linn was stiffed. Rencher owed the Club $18,544..16. It recovered nothing.

Guy wrote in his Redmond High School profile, “Life has been a lot of things, some expected, some unexpected, but it hasn’t ever been boring!”

Certainly not for his victims, many of whose whose lives were changed unalterably by his greed and perfidy..