Alternative schooling in Oregon: is the cure worse than the disease?

School-Choice_banner

More choices don’t always mean better choices.

Oregon, eager to appease vocal parents, gives them lots of K-12 options if they don’t want to send their children to traditional brick-and-mortar public schools.

This being National School Choice Week, alternative schooling advocates are in a particularly celebratory mood. “The landscape of options to meet the learning needs of today’s students is more diverse than ever, ” Kathryn Hickok,  executive vice president of the Cascade Policy Institute, said on Monday, Jan. 27.  “Empowering parents to choose among these options can unlock the unique potential of every child. “

There’s no question that alternative schooling can be seductive. After all, it can offer flexibility, more curriculum choice, self-paced learning, protection from threatening ideas and religious freedom. And I’m inclined to think that parents should have a role to play in conveying important values to their children.

It’s not clear, however, that all the schooling choices out there are better for the children or are adequately preparing young people to succeed and participate in our complex economy.

In addition, the fragmentation of our educational system may be undermining the need for all members of our society to see themselves in common cause – a necessity for the survival of our democracy. Where too many people are isolated from their peers, they may be less likely to see a relationship of mutual commitment and responsibility to others.

A case study: Junction City School District

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According to the Junction City, OR School District, of all of its  K-12 students in the 2019-2020 school year:

  • 1820 are attending district public schools
  • 74 are attending online public charter schools
  • 37 are being home schooled
  • >52 are attending private schools

Some district students may also be attending brick-and-mortar public charter schools, such as Triangle Lake, Willamette Leadership and Network Charter School, but they are not located within the district’s boundaries.

Students can attend a brick-and-mortar charter school without a release from the Junction City School District and such schools are not required to send the district a roster. The result is that no trail of paperwork is exchanged between the schools regarding Junction City resident students who attend the charter schools.

Online Public Charter Schools

According to the Junction City School District, as of Oct. 2019, district students were attending the following online public charter schools:

  • Oregon Connections Academy  (renamed Oregon Charter Academy in the 2020-2021 school year) – 4 students
  • Baker Web Academy – 42 students
  • Destinations Career Academy of Oregon – 1 student
  • Fossil Distance Learning Programs – 21 students
  • TEACH-NW – 6 students

bakerweblogo1  destinationslogoORCAlogo1  Print

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FOSSIL DISTANCE LEARNING ACADEMY

The academic performance of individual students attending the online public charter schools cannot be determined on the basis of available data. Only data on the performance of grades as a whole, based on standardized tests taken in English Language Arts, Mathematics and Science, are public.

That means there’s no way of knowing whether the students living within the Junction City School District who attend these schools are doing well or not.

The Oregon Department of Education does, however, collect data on the online schools, and it is dispiriting. It is clear that the schools are drawing children and money away from public schools while failing to provide a good alternative.

Despite that, the schools, also called cyber and virtual schools, are multiplying like fruit flies. “Other states have… increased oversight of fast-growing online schools,” noted a 2017 report by the Oregon Secretary of State’s Audits Division. “In contrast to these states, Oregon’s laws allow online schools to increase enrollment rapidly regardless of their performance.”

While online charter champions churn out a torrent of supportive stories that assert traditional schools are relics, critics are pummeled as Neanderthals unwilling to accept change.

Oregon’s online public charter schools and the districts sponsoring them are listed below:

Sponsoring District Online School 2018-19 Total Enrollment
Baker SD 5J Baker Web Academy 1,808
Mitchell SD 55 Cascade Virtual Academy 69
North Clackamas SD 12 Clackamas Web Academy 445
Eagle Point SD 9 Crater Lake Charter Academy 292
Mitchell SD 55 Destinations Career Academy of Oregon 38
Fossil SD 21J Fossil Charter School 755
Gervais SD 1 Frontier Charter Academy 303
Mitchell SD 55 Insight School of Oregon Painted Hills 305
Gresham-Barlow SD 10J Metro East Web Academy 522
Santiam Canyon SD 129J Oregon Connections Academy 3,886
North Bend SD 13 Oregon Virtual Academy 1,900
Scio SD 95 Oregon Virtual Education 37
Sheridan SD 48J Sheridan AllPrep Academy 128
Frenchglen SD 16 Silvies River Charter School 432
Estacada SD 108 Summit Learning Charter 1,081
Marcola SD 79J TEACH-NW 306
Fern Ridge SD 28J West Lane Technology Learning Center 73
Harney County SD 4 Oregon Family School 266
Paisley SD 11 Paisley School 215

Source: Oregon Department of Education

Oregon Connections Academy (ORCA), the largest online public charter school in terms of enrollment, is a target of many online school critics who argue that such schools stand out more for their aggressive tactics to recruit and enroll students than for their academic excellence. (The school was renamed Oregon Charter Academy in the 2020-2021 school year)

ORCA was placed on Oregon’s federally mandated improvement list after only 21.9 percent of tested students at the school met or exceeded math standards and 41.8% of tested students met or exceeded English Language Arts standards in 2018-19.

Baker Web Academy hasn’t performed well either. Just 28.1% of tested students at the Academy were proficient in math and 56.5 % of tested students were proficient in English Language Arts in 2018-19.

At TEACH-NW, 77.4% of tested students met or exceeded English Language Arts standards, but just 41.9% of tested students met or exceeded math standards in 2018-2019.

Attendance at online schools isn’t their strong suit either.

ORCA attendance has been dreadful. Regular attendance was only 63.4% during the 2018-19 school year and an average of 59.7% over the past three school years. That indicates chronic absenteeism.

At Destinations Career Academy, regular attendance was a dismal 26% in both the 2018-19 and 2017-18 school years. The online school says it combines traditional high school academics with industry-relevant, career-focused electives. Its poor attendance isn’t a very good start for those who will be eventually expected to show up regularly and on time at work.

Then there are graduation rates.

Graduation rates at all Oregon public schools, including online public 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.

Graduation rates for 2019 are based on students who first entered high school during the 2015-16 School Year.

In 2019, the graduation rate for all Oregon public schools was 80.01%.  For the Junction City School District, it was 85.16%. In sharp contrast, the graduation rate at Baker Web Academy was 62.50% and at Oregon Connections Academy 56.40%.

Only the Fossil Distance Learning Program has had a consistently high graduation rate of 83.33% – 100% over the past several years. It is worth noting, however, that Fossil hasn’t been dealing with as many students with disabilities, English language learners and low-income students as the Junction City School District.

TEACH-NW started in 2017 and Destinations Career Academy of Oregon in 2018, so neither has a graduation rate for a cohort that entered during the 2015-16 school year.

Another way to evaluate school performance is to look at students’ on-track performance, the percent of freshman who have at least 25% of the credits needed to graduate with a regular diploma by the beginning of their sophomore year. Students on-track to graduate by the end of their freshman year are more than twice as likely as students who are off-track to graduate within four years of entering high school.

The 2018-19 on-track average was 85% for all Oregon public schools and 82% for the Junction City School District. In contrast, the average was just 62% at Baker Web Academy and 59% at Oregon Connections Academy.  Data is not available for the other online public schools Junction City School District students attended that year.

Even brick-and-mortar charter schools are critical of their online counterparts. While they may be at the same charter 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 an Education Commission of the States’ National Forum on Education Policy.

What all this data indicates is that most Junction City parents enrolling their children to online public charter schools are not choosing superior alternatives to district schools.

Homeschooling 

How about children who are being homeschooled instead of sent to the traditional public schools?  Is that a superior alternative?

As noted earlier, there are 37 registered homeschoolers in the Junction City School District, a small portion of the estimated 22,000 statewide.

Parents of students between the ages of 6-18 are supposed to notify their local Education Service District (ESD) of their intent to home school within 10 days of beginning to home school, but compliance is not comprehensive.

A homeschooler is expected to take standardized testing by August 15 of the summer following the completion of 3rd, 5th, 8th, and 10th grades, as long as the child has been homeschooled since at least February 15 of the year preceding testing (18 months before the test deadline).

The required tests include grade-level math (concepts, application, skills), reading (comprehension), and language (writing, spelling/grammar, punctuation, etc.)

With the above information, you might be tempted to say that public oversight of homeschoolers is obviously comparable to that of public school because the state knows how all homeschooled students are performing. You’d be wrong.

First, homeschooled students are not required to take common standardized tests that measure academic progress. They can opt out, and many of them do.

Second, homeschoolers’ tests are scored on a percentile, so the score a child gets represents how many people taking the same test got a lower score. In other words, the scores don’t represent how well the child knows the material, only how well the child performs relative to every other homeschooler taking the test. Even then, If a child scores at the 15th percentile or above, then the ESD simply files the report and there’s no follow-up.

Third, homeschoolers don’t have to report their scores to anybody unless their education service district (ESD) asks for them. But the state cares so little about how these children are doing that ESDs almost never request test scores, according to the Oregon Department of Education.

Not that it would make much difference if ESDs did request the test scores.

That’s because homeschoolers would only need to report their composite percentile score. This is an almost useless single percentile representing a child’s performance on all three subjects together. It’s almost as though the state doesn’t really want to know how homeschoolers are doing.

What is clear, then, is that nobody really knows whether Junction City parents who are homeschooling their children are providing them with an equal or superior alternative to District schools.

Private schools

According to the Junction City School District, more than 52 students in the district attend private schools, but obtaining an accurate count is difficult.

“Private schools are not required to report to us as to how many (or which) JC resident students are attending private school,” said Kathleen Rodden-Nord, the district superintendent. “Our estimate is based on when my assistant has called them to inquire about the number.”

The count can also be off because some students whose transfer to an online public charter school was approved by the district are also enrolled in private schools.

According to the Junction City School District, private Schools in the district offering classes within the K-12 band, and their enrollment of district students, include:

  • The Strive Academy (Grades 4-12) – 12
  • Docere Academy of Arts (Grades 7-10) – 11
  • Nature Discovery Christian School (Grades PK-12) – 52

I visited The Strive Academy and Docere Academy of Arts on Jan. 15, 2020 to gather information about their operations.

The Strive Academy

The Strive Academy was hard to find. After driving by the school’s address, 375 Holly Street, several times and seeing no school signs, I figured maybe it had suddenly moved or closed. To find out, I knocked on the door of Martial Arts America, the business at the Holly Street address.

strivedoor

To my surprise, Strive was located inside the business. Outfitted for martial arts training, with striking bags along the wall and a thick mat covering most of the floor, the sole indication of a school in the room was a long table where seven children of varying ages sat with their laptops. The only adults in the room were Ruth Garcia, Strive’s owner and Director, and an assistant. Overall, the scene looked more like a children’s gym/playroom than a school and it was hard to believe much real, intense, creative learning was going on.

striveclassroom

The Strive Academy

Garcia, who has no background in education, said the school serves students in 5th – 12th grade. It has about a dozen students enrolled and a capacity of 15, she said. . All core classes (science, math, social studies and language art) are taken online through Baker Web Academy, which is tuition-free because it is a public online charter school.

For the online classes, Strive says it uses only accredited and approved online schools recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) and the United States Department of Education.

CHEA does not, however, “recognize” any online K-12 schools. “We don’t have anything to do with K-12, only post-secondary education,” said Eric G. Selwyn, CHEA’s Membership and Information Administrator. The U.S. Department of Education doesn’t recognize, approve or accredit any online K-12 schools or programs either.

Most of the students now at Strive initially sought approval from the Junction City School District to transfer to Baker Web Academy, Garcia said. Once enrolled at Baker Web, they also enrolled at Strive.

The academic performance of the individual students at Strive is a true mystery, partly because it is not Strive that is grading them, but Baker Web Academy. Furthermore, the Oregon Department of Education discloses performance measures by grade level, not by individual students.

Docere Academy of Arts

Docere Academy of Arts wasn’t that easy to find either. The school gives its address as 530 W 7th Ave, Junction City, but that address is attached to a building identified on a plaque at the entrance as Christ’s Center.

ChristsCenter

Entrance to Christ’s Center Church

Learning from my experience with Strive, I walked into the building and asked if they knew anything about Docere.  It turned out the church building was a former elementary school and Docere was in a classroom down one of the hallways.

Like Strive, Docere operates in one large room, though Docere’s space is furnished and pleasantly decorated like a traditional classroom setting.

Docereclassroom

A student at the Docere Academy of Arts

Docere embraces John F. Kennedy’s view that, “This country cannot afford to be materially rich and spiritually poor.”

“…my hope and vision is to see a school for girls that starts with the Bible as our foundation for all subjects and to inspire a love for learning and discovering God’s truths through academia and the arts,” the school’s Director and instructor,  Jaymie Starr, says in a standard letter to prospective families and students.

Starr said the school currently serves 11 girls in grades 7-10. As with Strive, all core classes are offered only online, with most students registered at Baker Web Academy and a few with the Junction City School District’s online program, JC Online.

There are two people on Docere’s staff according to its website, Jaymie Starr (also identified as Barbara J. Starr in other records) and her husband, Jeffery Starr.

The website says Jaymie holds an Associate’s of Biblical Studies degree from University of the Nations, which is not accredited by any recognized accreditation body. “The goal of the U of N is to teach students how to apply biblical truth practically and to fulfill the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20),” The university’s website says.

Jaymie completed a year of teacher training from U of N through their satellite campus in Tyler, TX.  The program, Teachers For The Nations (TFN), says it teaches how to “train the student to prepare and present Biblically-based lesson plans for every subject in the curriculum.”

According to Docere’s website, Jaymie’s husband, Jeffery Starr, is a Youth Pastor at Christ’s Center Church. He also works as a middle school track and cross country coach at Junction City’s Oaklea Middle School. “I love Jesus, my family and coffee!,” he says on his Facebook page.

Although Docere’s classroom setting is superior to Strive’s, the academic performance of the individual students at Docere  is just as much a mystery. Baker Web Academy is grading them, not Docere, and the Oregon Department of Education discloses performance measures only by grade level, not by individual students.

Then there’s the money

One thing all the alternative schooling arrangements have in common is that somebody is making money.

At Docere, Strive and other private schools that access online coursework through public charter schools, the online classes may be free, but all the private schools have additional charges.

At Strive, all new students pay a $149 processing fee that also covers a martial arts uniform. Then there is a $99 a month charge for a required martial arts class twice a week. In addition, tuition is $300 a month, which covers field trips and instruction in things such as robotics, music, art and first aid. That translates into $3740 for a school year for a new student.

If the school was operating at capacity, it would generate $56,100 of revenue over a 9-month school year. “You’re paying for a safe place, a safe environment,” Garcia said.

At Docere, there’s a registration fee of $100 and a monthly tuition fee of $275 per student with a $50/month sibling discount. The tuition is expected to cover the majority of costs for everything from weekly science labs, dance workshops, and art classes to cooking classes and field trips. Tuition also covers the school’s rent, activity costs, salary for the school director, payments to other teachers, tutor costs, substitutes, supplies, copies and wifi. That translates into $2,575 for a school year for a new student.

With 11 students, the school is generating $28,325 of revenue over a 9-month school year.

The big money, however, isn’t being made by the private schools.  It’s being made by the online public charter schools that provide the coursework.

These schools aren’t collecting tuition from their students. Instead, the mostly poorly performing online schools  are being supported with money diverted from the state’s brick-and-mortar public schools. The Oregon Department of Education distributes State School Fund money to each school district that sponsors a charter school; the district then passes on most of that money to the charter school.

 The Santiam Canyon School District sponsors Oregon Connections Academy, which had the largest enrollment of 3,886 students on Oct. 1, 2019. The State School Fund gave the district $30,419,216.36 for the 2018-19 school year to support that sponsorship.

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 Santiam Canyon School District chose to retain 1% ($304,192.16) of the State School Fund money it received and then to charge Oregon Connections Academy 3.5% ($1,054,025.85) of the balance as a management fee for the provision of services for the 2018-19 school year. That translated to $1,358,218.01 in revenue to the Santiam Canyon School District and $29,060,998.35 in revenue to Oregon Connections Academy.

Distributions to all the Oregon school districts sponsoring online public charter schools that year are shown below:

County District sponsor Charter school SSF $ rec’d
Linn Santiam Canyon SD 129J Oregon Connections Academy  $  30,419,216.36
Coos North Bend SD 13 Oregon Virtual Academy  $  14,510,307.99
Baker Baker SD 5J Baker Web Academy  $  14,147,825.08
Clackamas Estacada SD 108 Summit Learning Charter  $    8,616,826.86
Wheeler Fossil SD 21J Fossil Charter School  $    5,856,698.56
Multnomah Gresham-Barlow SD 10J Metro East Web Academy  $    4,047,657.29
Clackamas North Clackamas SD 12 Clackamas Web Academy  $    3,511,076.97
Wheeler Mitchell SD 55 Cascade Virtual Academy; Destinations Career Academy of Oregon; Insight School of Oregon-Painted Hills  $    3,409,914.44
Harney Frenchglen SD 16 Silvies River Charter School  $    3,367,207.13
Marion Gervais SD 1 Frontier Charter Academy  $    2,350,696.75
Lane Marcola SD 79J TEACH-NW  $    2,348,684.27
Jackson Eagle Point SD 9 Crater Lake Academy  $    2,256,338.83
Harney Harney County SD 4 Oregon Family School  $    2,032,711.22
Lake Paisley SD 11 Paisley Charter School  $    1,618,021.06
Yamhill Sheridan SD 48J Sheridan All Prep  $    1,047,705.30
Lane Fern Ridge SD 28J West Lane Technology Learning Center  $        579,874.37
Linn Scio SD 95 Oregon Virtual Education  $        232,202.48

Source: Oregon Department of Education

     Oregon’s State School Fund sent $100,352,964.96 to school districts sponsoring online public charter schools for the 2018-2019 school year.

All that money for a mostly substandard education and mediocre results.

Some State School Fund money may also be leaking back to the parents of the online students in the form of cash, debit cards or school-controlled accounts that students and their families are supposed to use for school-related purposes.

In a late 2019 posting to the Junction City School District’s districts website, Rodden-Nord  alleged that some online public charter schools are using State School Fund money to give their students “stipends”  that ranged from $900 per student to at least $2000 per student. “A handful of Junction City families seeking a release from our district to attend a virtual charter program have expressed that they do not want to do JC Online (the district’s online program) because we do not provide such a stipend and they need it, or want it,”  Rodden-Nord said.

The TEACH-NW website confirms that annual so-called “allotments” will be made to students in the 2019-2020 school year as follows, with amounts allocated based on initial enrollment quarter:

According to Phillip Johnson, the Director at TEACH-NW,  allotments can be used to cover academic materials such as textbooks, school supplies, curriculum materials, approved instructional programs (i.e. music, dance), enrichment experiences, educational subscriptions, educational fees, tutoring services, some athletics fees and equipment, field trips, and internet expenses as approved by the student’s Educational Facilitator (assigned teacher).

“All expenditures are closely monitored (daily) by our account supervisor,” Johnson said. “Families do have access to a program issued debit card which is under the direct control of our program (activation, deactivation, loading). We also process reimbursements for those families who prefer to not use their debit card. All expenditures must be directly linked to the student’s Individual Learning Plan (ILP) which is aligned to state standards.  Failure to maintain program compliance results in allotment suspension.”

Amber Jallo, Enrollment Manager at the Fossil Distance Learning Program, said her school also supplies funds to families. “We supply $1500 of ed funds,” she said. “This breaks down to be $750 per semester. These funds can be spent on curriculum, field trips and enrichment.”

Jim Smith, Superintendent of the Fossil School District, added,  “We provide educational funds to purchase curriculum and instruction.  All purchases must meet all requirements provided in our policies. Our students can currently use these funds for curriculum, educational supplies, tutoring, instruction, and field trips.”

Daniel Huld, Superintendent of Baker Charter Schools, said they don’t provide students with any such stipends.

Even if online public charter schools do give some of their State School Fund money to students or their families, they may not be breaking any rules if the funds are intended to be used for school-related expenses.  “To our understanding there is nothing that explicitly prohibits this in the charter school statutes, or in state law that speaks specifically to this issue,” said Jenni Knaus, a Communications Specialist at the Oregon Department of Education.

_______________________

I get it that the alternative education choices reflect a lack of confidence in traditional educational institutions. However, despite the almost messianic belief in alternative schooling held by many supporters, it’s clear from the facts on the ground that they have not found the promised land.

A close look reveals a brutal truth — there are major flaws in many of the alternative options being chosen by Oregon parents and the damage being inflicted on their children could be severe.

All Oregonians, particularly the legislature and governor, should care because education is not just a private good.  Studied indifference or washing our hands of the consequences of educational malfeasance can have serious consequences for the community at large.

As Chester Finn Jr., Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, put it, “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…”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                                                         

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                                                         

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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