We have a two part post about what’s happening in the legislature now that could affect ORCA.
1) If you are a new family, there is a history of what has brought us to this point. If you are a returning family and are familiar with what has been happening, feel free to skip this first part. However, it might also be a good refresher of what brought us to this point.
2) What’s currently happening in a task force – and, how it could impact Oregon’s online schools.
Spring of 2009: ORCA was facing the ominous Senate Bill 767, or SB 767. That bill's intent was to shut down online charter schools in Oregon, with ORCA being the main target. ORCA's opponents also had the upper hand. They had the support of the House of Representatives, the Senate and the governor. It was positively frightening for online families who had found a great method of education in online learning through the public school system.
Because of this parent group, their actions and loud voice, we managed to get the ominous parts of SB 767 amended out. We cheered -- a lot. That was an amazing time for those of us who were there. You will hear words like "David and Goliath" to describe that spring and fighting for our existence.
However, even with the 50+ amendments to the bill, there were still some provisions in the bill that were harmful to our families. Our enrollment was arbitrarily capped at 2,500 students. For those families who were new to ORCA, starting the fall of 2009 and 2010, this cap was incredibly stressful. It meant kids were put on a waiting list for, sometimes, months at a time. Sometimes it meant a brother was enrolled because there was space in his grade but his sister was on a waiting list because her grade was full – again, very, very, stressful.
Then one pivotal thing happened in Oregon. The elections in 2010 changed the makeup of the state legislature. Because some pivotal seats changed officeholders, ORCA's opponents didn't have the level of legislative support they did in 2009. It meant our opponents needed to negotiate and compromise with us. Most importantly, it meant they had to change their focus from trying to shut down online charter schools. (Note of caution: Don't expect them to stop trying! That's why we must remain on guard.)
Legislative Session 2011: Education choice advocates introduced House Bill 2301. This bill applied the State Board of Education recommendations regarding online charter schools. This bill called for the end of the oppressive caps, allowed for a small percentage of AP classes and language classes to be taught by qualified out-of-state teachers (which we had lost in SB 767), and increased funding for online charter schools.
Of course, our opponents also introduced legislation. Theirs would have again made it so that ORCA as we know it would cease to exist. We attended those hearings, asked parents to write and call legislators, and that bill died in committee.
But what happened to HB 2301? It got political yet again. In its passage we lost the full funding of ORCA that we wanted. We regained some of our ability to offer AP and language classes. And, most importantly, when it passed (again, because this group kept constant pressure on decision makers) the arbitrary 2,500 student cap changed to a much more reasonable maximum 3% of any district's student population. ORCA's current enrollment is at 3,500. We're impressed that it swelled that high given that the governor only signed the bill into law the first week of August. It is further proof that there is a need for this option in public education!
Current Task Force That Met on November 4th, 2011:
“Why are we still watching what is happening in the legislature right now? Didn’t we get a huge victory? And, besides, the legislature isn't even in session….” These are questions that we know many of you are asking.
One compromise that came out of HB 2301 was that a "workgroup" was ordered. In Oregon, those are called task force groups. We do not support forming YET ANOTHER task force. We feel that it is a tool used by the status quo cabal to continually harass online charter schools and prevent any meaningful resolution of the issues. This is the third task force on online charter schools. The stated goal for this task force is to provide “governance” recommendations to the legislature for a vote in the 2012 session. Of course, the process has the very real effect of continuing to delay a "final" decision on how the state should best regulate online schools. As parents and teachers, we would very much like to do what we do best – working on teaching our children, instead of constantly being forced to defend our existence!
November 4th’s task force meeting was interesting. As required, the members were handpicked by the governor. We are not terribly satisfied with all of those who were chosen. It was stated in the early talks of this task force that, without question, families need to have direct representation on it. Not only was that promise not fulfilled, the members of the task force were chosen very late. The initial meeting of the task force was scheduled for September 21st. That meeting was postponed as the members had not yet been chosen. In fact, the final announcement of members didn’t occur until the third week of October. Of course, the deadline for any recommendations is November 17th, leaving little time for a comprehensive and thoughtful analysis.
Again, this current group was chosen to discuss the "governance" or oversight of online schools. Unfortunately, the direction that the group began with put red flags up for us. The first recommendation made was to continue the task force beyond the 2012 legislative session. This would, again, just push out any decisions to yet another legislature. Throughout the meeting, Anne Marie was frantically texting decision makers to let them know, “NO! We deserve the issue of governance to be decided. We are tired of trekking down to Salem to make sure decision makers aren't ignoring our school -- forgetting their decisions affect real kids.” In the end little was decided beyond a new meeting date of the Monday, 7th, at 4 pm (that meeting has since been postponed).
We met with a task force member after the meeting. The feeling in the room was that if the task force came up with continuing its work past 2012 for a recommendation, it won't get far in the legislature. Those who support us recognize the whole process of this current task force hasn't been handled very well, nor been given adequate attention to make it a meaningful work group.
However, we also recognize that our opponents can, and have, pulled surprises out of left field. Until these deadlines come and go, we are staying vigilant and watching what happens. So please stay close to your email. We may possibly be putting out a call to contact a task force member or legislator to tell them why ORCA works for you.
We also invite you to watch the livestream of the task force. It helps a lot to keep tabs on who the players are in this whole process. It also helps us if you "check in" and let us know you're watching. We want to be prepared to give testimony that many, many, online families in Oregon are watching. So, watch your yahoo group postings and Facebook fan page postings. We will post both places when we know important meetings are coming up. We will do the same when February's legislature is in session. At this point we don't know what bills will be introduced, but we'll keep you posted.
In the end, what do we, as a parent group, want out of this process? We would like this task force to make meaningful recommendations that decide this issue of "governance" and act as a guide for future online schools in Oregon. Despite the constant rhetoric it hasn’t happened yet. Despite the previous recommendations for governance we are still living in uncertainty. Realistically, if it can't come up with fair, commonsense, and final recommendations, we would like this task force to peter out. It seems to be doing that but we aren't turning our back on it until it is out for good.
Till then, your ORCAPA board will be watching and keeping you informed. Be ready to tell your stories to those who will decide your school's future! Thanks for being what you are - a great bunch of champions!! Without you, there would be no ORCA today!
Your parent board,
Anne Marie Gurney, Preston Baxter, Paula Foster, Jessica Cousineau, Mark Scarborough