You might not be aware of them, but there are dozens around Oregon - they focus on languages, the environment, college courses, many exist on the internet. They are the state’s 132 charter schools and we should celebrate them during National Charter Schools Week, which runs from May 12 through May 18.
This is also the 20th Anniversary of Oregon’s landmark charter school law enacted by the legislature in May 1999. We both helped draft this law, both created charter schools in the years since, and now hope for a brighter future for these education innovators.
The charter law creates an, “avenue for parents, educators and community members to take responsible risks to create new, innovative, more flexible ways of educating all children within the public school system.” According to the Oregon Department of Education, the avenue of charter schools has experienced a 62-percent net increase in the past decade. Charters currently serve over 34,000 students or 6-percent of Oregon’s total K-12 school population.
After the charter law passed, we were intrigued about the idea of establishing Oregon’s first online public charter school, to deliver classes to students in their homes using the internet. In 2005 Oregon Connections Academy became reality serving hundreds of students statewide. We spent years, joining forces with other advocates for charters and making compromises at the state capitol so students could have virtual charter schools as a choice for their education.
Over the past twenty years charters did breathe fresh life into what was, and at times still is, the state’s troubled public school system. Charter schools have now become part of the fabric of Oregon’s education environment. Even though the policy and funding battles were frustrating, we are proud to be a part of Oregon’s charter school story.
The rewards come when we see all the wonderful publicly funded schools that students, parents, and teachers can now choose from that wouldn’t be there today, but for those battles. The real success stories are the numerous students whose lives are transformed by charters in positive ways, especially the ones who’ve become lifelong learners.
Online public schools have been the most robust part of the charter movement in Oregon. New technology we can’t even imagine is on the horizon creating more opportunities to meet the needs of students and our changing society in the future.
Our state could do much more toward innovation, charters, and choice. In fact, online public schools are specifically denied any grant funds in the new $2 billion legislative education reform package. We hope parents will continue to seek school options that best meet their student’s learning needs, and support school choice in Oregon.
Perhaps today’s young children growing up in the interconnected digital world will become parents, expecting the benefits of charter schools for their kids. If that happens there will be additional competition, renewed creativity, and twenty years from now charter schools - physical and virtual - will be more numerous, more effective, more diverse, and more popular than ever before.
Jeff Kropf is the Oregon Connections Academy Board President and a former Oregon State Representative. Rob Kremer is the Pearson/Connections Education Government Affairs Director, Oregon Charter School Service Center founder, and Arthur Academy Charter Schools Network co-founder. For more information, call Oregon Connections Academy, at 503-897-2272.