An Oregon virtual charter school soon could be the victim of its own success: The Oregon Connections Academy has existed for less than two years now, but it’s already on pace to become one of the largest schools in the state, with about 1,200 students so far. Yet that growth could screech to a halt in just a few years, if state lawmakers don’t reconsider a bill passed in the final hours of the 2005 legislative session.

The bill requires at least 50 percent of the students at an online charter school to live in the district where the school is based.

State officials say the school, which is run by for-profit Connections Academy of Maryland, is exempt from that rule right now, because its contract was already in place by the time the new law was passed.

But when that contract expires in a few years, the school would be required to comply with the residency requirement, said Gene Evans, a spokesman for the Oregon Department of Education.

A bill to get rid of the residency requirement was expected to be heard in front of a House subcommittee on Education Innovation this week.

It’s the first of a number of charter school-related bills that could surface in Oregon this legislative session, a touchy subject in a state that’s been somewhat slow to embrace the charter school movement.

Charter schools operate under a contract with a school district or the state, receiving public funding. Such schools must be open to any student but are free of many of the regulations that govern traditional public schools.

Online lessons have emerged as a key component of many charter schools nationwide, with supporters such as state Rep. John Dallum, R-The Dalles, a former school superintendent, calling them “like what the automobile was to transportation–a new vehicle, one that we ought not to inhibit, but to promote.”

Dallum’s district might be especially attuned to online activity. Its location on the power-generating Columbia River is home to the so-called “Googleplex,” one of the largest data centers in the world, a server farm the size of two football fields operated by search giant Google.

The state’s teachers unions have long been leery of Oregon’s 70 charter schools, where teachers are not automatically subject to licensing rules, or part of a bargaining unit. Some school boards and superintendents, meanwhile, worry that the charter schools siphon off money and students, especially from smaller, more rural districts.

Virtual charters have their own set of concerns, including student-teacher ratios that can reach as high as 50-to-1, according to Larry Wolf, president of the Oregon Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.

“We wouldn’t want that ratio in our regular schools, so why would we want it in an online situation?” Wolf said. “Are these people available when these students need help?”

The relationship between Connections Academy and the state has been especially bumpy. In September, just before the start of the school year, state education officials said they’d withhold public money from the school, because of its requirement that parents serve as “learning coaches.”

The academy wound up with its money, but only after agreeing to change the requirement to a “recommendation.”

Matt Wingard, a spokesman for the school, said Connections officials believe the school was permanently exempt from the residency requirement, grandfathered in because its contract was already in place. Any changes to that could prompt a court battle, he said.

“The whole idea of an online public school is that people would be able to attend from great distances,” he said. “The 50 percent rule is a poison pill designed to kill that innovation.”

While the law is in effect, however, Connections has a de facto monopoly on the online charter school movement in Oregon. A spokesman for a competitor, Virginia-based K12 Inc., said the company would be interested in Oregon, but any new online charter school would be “limited” because of the residency rules.

The debate has divided the charter school community, said Kaaren Heikes, program director of the Charter Schools Development Center in Portland.

“Most of the charter schools in the state are in favor of keeping [the residency requirement],” Heikes said. “They feel charter schools exist to provide options within a local community, not statewide.”

Links:

Oregon Department of Education

http://www.ode.state.or.us/

Oregon Rep. John Dallum

http://www.leg.state.or.us/dallum/

Connections Academy

http://www.connectionsacademy.com

K12 Inc.

http://www.k12.com

Oregon Education Association

http://www.oregoned.org