School House Does Not Rock

4J reaches cap of unenrollment and can deny students admission to online charter schools

When her second grade daughter was accepted into Fossil Distance Learning Program, an Oregon-based online charter school, Amanda Kinsey felt relieved. After more than a year on the waitlist, Kinsey finally had an educational alternative for her child, who struggled in the public school system.

Then, Eugene’s 4J School District rejected their request to unenroll from Adams Elementary School, citing an Oregon state law which says that once districts reach 3 percent unenrollment, they have the option to deny students admission to online charter schools outside of the school district. 

When the law was introduced in 2011, school districts across the state didn’t necessarily have an issue with enrollment numbers. But as the decade wore on, more school districts neared that 3 percent unenrollment rate, an issue further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, parents across Oregon like Kinsey who get their children accepted into state-wide charter schools don’t know what to do. Online charter schools are free, subsidized through state funding based on enrollment, and not all families can afford private schools.

“It was just terrible last year,” Kinsey says of the transition to virtual learning. “I don’t feel like she finished first grade, but it was a lot of online stuff. They were just doing the best they could, but we were excited to be accepted into Fossil.” She explains that Fossil is more geared towards home-schooling parents.

According to data from the Oregon Department of Education, 23 percent of school districts this year are presumed to or have already reached the cap.

Jim Smith is the superintendent for the Fossil Distance Learning Program. In six years with the school he says he does not remember students being denied unenrollment in the past. He adds that right now, nearly three dozen students have been denied unenrollment in their schools. 

“This year with all the denials, it just creates more work on our enrollment team to work down our waiting list and see if the next family could gain a release from their home district,” Smith writes in an email.

Once Kinsey’s daughter was accepted, she informed her 4J school that her child would not be attending the elementary school that year, she says. She eventually got an email back that said her request for unenrollment was rejected. Fossil had to drop her from the roster.

“Denial from 4J was completely unprecedented,” she says. 

Daniel Huld is the superintendent of Baker Charter Schools, another statewide charter program. “In 2011, setting the cap at 3 percent seemed like a reasonable number,” Huld says. “We would have hit the virtual school cap eventually anyways without COVID, but COVID fast-tracked it.”

The solution, Huld says, would be to raise the cap to 5 percent or something similar, which advocates have pushed for. But since the cap is set in the state law, to increase it would require legislation. In June 2020, a bill to raise the cap was presented to the state Legislature, but has not yet moved forward.

Though it’s becoming a hindrance to some families, Huld says the reason the state capped the number of students switching to online charter schools is to prevent large numbers of students from unenrolling in the public school system, which could then put the school in danger of losing funding or other resources. 

“The main concern is that districts are worried about losing students. If they were worried about that in 2011, they are more worried about that in 2020,” Huld says.

Now that the pandemic is changing the entire school system, Huld says, parents would rather have the option of an already established online school, rather than wait for public schools to catch up on technology and resources. And online charter schools are a good option for parents who cannot afford a private school or private tutoring to help their kids through the troubles of Zoom schools.

In an email, a 4J spokesperson said that families can choose to enroll in a local charter school if space is available, enroll in private school or home school, which the 3 percent limit does not apply to. She says that if the numbers drop below the 3 percent threshold, the district will begin to approve requests for un-enrollment. 

Huld echoes the sensitivity of the situation, given that districts are online for the first time, and all parents are trying to do what is best for their children.

“The bottom line is, does the parent have a choice?”