President Donald Trump has vowed to increase school choice around the country and his Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, is a champion of charter schools. Oregon already has 120 charter schools with more than 30-thousand kids. We will likely be seeing more.
Mill City, Oregon has a population of 18-hundred. Beautiful scenery, lots of log trucks, and it's home to the largest school in the state. It is the four-thousand student Oregon Connections Academy, where kids from around the state learn online. Allison Galvin is the director:
"They have virtual live classroom sessions every single day and so they are live with their teacher in those sessions. Our teachers also do one-on-one or small group tutoring sessions with their students, and our teachers are calling students."
Charter schools are taxpayer-funded alternatives to traditional public schools with more freedom (but less pay) for teachers. The fastest growing are the online charters like Oregon Connections Academy:
"We do have many of our students that weren't successful for one reason or another. Maybe it's anxiety, bullying, or just struggled with finding how to be academically successful."
The annual student turnover rate at Connections is almost 50-percent, although in marketing it focuses on its success stories.
Kate Pattison at the Oregon Department of Education says by law, all charter schools in Oregon are non-profit, at least technically:
"With virtual public charter schools, many of those contract with for-profit entities like Connections learning and k12 Inc. that provide the education services, the curriculum, the learning platform, and sometimes even the management."
The for-profits lease equipment and provide enrollment services to their non-profit partners but don't hire the teachers. Mary Mertz was an executive for a company that twinned with online non-profits. She noticed that the schools were not enrolling many minorities:
"The response was the business model had not chosen that particular student population as a market niche, and my response to management was, 'but we are accepting public funds.'"
Mertz says the online charters may be enrolling students who are wrong for that kind of education, believing that these days tech-savvy kids will do well in that environment:
"What we found was kids were really, really good at playing computer games, at texting, really, really good at some of the social media, but truly their computer skills didn't match the needs and the demands of an online program. It sets you up for failure."
Allison Galvin says since these kids were struggling to begin with in traditional schools, so it shouldn't be a surprise that so many leave:
"Sometimes like our high school students, they come to us credit deficient and we work really hard to support them where they are and we get them back on track and they might want to graduate with their friends in their local brick and mortar school."
Connections has a 62-percent graduation rate, but it's been improving. The second largest online charter, Oregon Virtual, has a 31-percent graduation rate. Although they have independent boards, the non-profit parts of the online charters generally stick with their for-profit partners, no matter the outcomes and don't regularly seek public bids. At Oregon Virtual, the school director is paid by the for-profit. A third school has a 19-percent graduation rate.
Outside the online world, Oregon charters include Waldorf and Montessori schools, rural schools, schools that focus on arts or science, and in the Springfield District:
There's even a charter that, in part, prepares kids for the military.
Just south of Corvallis, Chris O'Connell's students are making a hill, covering it with soil, and then water, to demonstrate erosion:
(Sounds of teacher and kids...)
The K-5 Muddy Creek school, with its science focus, is thriving and has a waiting list:
"The student turnover this year has been zero. We've had no loss of students."
Brian Traynor is the principal at the 110-pupil school.
"The thing about Muddy Creek that stands out to me is family, the orientation that older kids look out for the younger kids and every staff member knows every kid in the school."
Muddy Creek's test scores are good and it beats all Corvallis elementary schools in science. Yet Traynor agrees that the main reason the Oregon Legislature created charters was to improve traditional public schools:
"That is the mission. That is the vision of charter schools to be innovative and bring back ideas that work. I'm not sure I'm seeing that happen."
And while there are some exceptions, a state report reaches a similar conclusion.
This report is part of a series on the future of public education, funded by The Wayne Morse Center for Law and Politics at the University of Oregon.