Redmond mother Rebekah Bria was looking for the perfect school environment for her seventh grader, who has learning disabilities and works best in an intimate learning environment.
This summer, Bria believed she found the perfect solution: Silvies River Charter School, a public online charter school sponsored by Harney County Union High School District.
But Bria wasn’t able to apply. Her local school district, Redmond, had put a limit on the number of area students who could enroll in online public charter schools, so her son couldn’t get in to Silvies River.
This deeply frustrated Bria, who is now considering homeschooling.
“The best option for my child, as a middle schooler with special needs and trauma, is taken away from him because of some rule,” she said. “Parenting is hard enough, why are they making it harder?”
Bria isn’t alone. Some Oregon parents trying to enroll their children in online public charter schools have found their local school districts are blocking their applications. This is due to a 2011 state law, which allows Oregon school districts to deny families enrollment in a public online charter school if more than 3% of that district’s student population is already enrolled in online public charters. Parents say these issues have persisted before the pandemic.
Some parents and local politicians are hoping to raise that cap, stating that families should have more choice in how their children are educated. Some teachers’ unions and school districts have the opposite view, stating that a raised cap would siphon state funding from local schools to for-profit online charter academies.
The state school funding formula is complex, but in general, districts receive more money if more students are enrolled.
“Raising the cap on virtual charter schools will only undercut the educational opportunities of the vast majority of students who are served by our public schools, and make it more difficult for our public schools to maintain essential services, like meal programs and mental health support,” John Larson, president of the Oregon Education Association, wrote in a statement to The Bulletin.
Although the majority of Oregon students still attend traditional public schools, online charter schools have become a popular choice for some families. Last school year, there were 19 public charter schools with 13,041 students enrolled, according to state data. That’s about 2% of Oregon’s total student population.
Last school year, Mill City-based Oregon Connections Academy — now the Oregon Charter Academy — enrolled nearly 3,850 students in grades K-12, according to state data. That’s 1,000 students more than any other single school in the state, and nearly the same student population as the entirety of Jefferson County School District.
These online charter schools do not have any organized teachers’ unions that the Oregon Department of Education and the Oregon Education Association are aware of.
Parents may choose to enroll their children in online public charter schools for various reasons. Some say their children work better in that unique learning environment, like Bria. Others’ interest in these schools is more recent, as they were displeased with local school districts’ attempts at distance learning this spring during the COVID-19 pandemic, said Tricia Powell, president of Oregon Virtual Public Schools Alliance, a nonprofit advocacy group for online public charter schools.
This new interest in the COVID-19 era means more families are hitting the school enrollment limit, she said.
“We keep hearing from more families as districts announce that they have met the 3% cap,” Powell said. “The quarantine, and the need for distancing during this time, has brought this to light as a question for many families.”
Central Oregon’s two largest districts take different stances on this issue. Bend-La Pine Schools doesn’t have any limit on families opting to leave the district for an online charter.
Redmond School District had the same stance until this year. The district decided to enforce the 3% application cap to encourage families to stick with Redmond’s online program while classrooms remained closed, according to Superintendent Charan Cline.
“As a result of the pandemic and in an effort to preserve enrollment and strong academic programing, we made the decision to temporarily adhere to the 3% limit,” Cline wrote in an email.
The three state legislators who represent the Bend/Redmond area — Reps. Cheri Helt and Jack Zika and Sen. Tim Knopp, all Republicans — support raising the 3% enrollment cap to 8%.
“I think it’s imperative that we have options for our students,” said Helt, who previously served on the Bend-La Pine School Board.
A bill to raise the cap shuffled around Salem in the Legislature’s special session in June, but didn’t gain any traction, Helt said.
Both Zika and Knopp said some legislators discussed bringing up a bill to raise the cap during the upcoming special session this month, but they weren’t sure if it would come to fruition.
Barry Branaugh, an executive board member of the Redmond Education Association, disagreed with the representatives.
“By allowing more students to leave (the school district), it will also impact the funding to our schools, thus making it more difficult to provide the best experience we can for students given the current situation,” he wrote in an email.