Matt Wingard’s Plan to Line His Pockets with Your Tax Dollars

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On a mid-spring day in the middle of his first legislative session, Rep. Matt Wingard (R-Wilsonville) stood in front of a microphone on the floor of the Oregon House of Representatives to speak out about his favorite subject: Online charter schools—one in particular.

Matt Wingard on the House Floor“Colleagues, I want to take this opportunity to tell you a little bit more about a success story called Oregon Connections Academy, or ORCA,” Wingard began. He spent the next few minutes extolling the virtues of the Scio-based online school, charting its growth from just a couple hundred students in 2005 to more than 2,600 four years later.

In a tone reminiscent of a radio pitchman, Wingard told stories about some of the students, and warned against the legislature placing restrictions on the school. “Let’s keep that option open to families, and help ORCA celebrate the great things about online learning,” he concluded. “Not just today, but for many years to come.”

But here’s one thing that Wingard didn’t mention that day, while he was testifying to the greatness of Oregon Connections Academy: He’s on the payroll of the online school’s for-profit parent corporation, Connections Academy. 

In fact, according to state records, Wingard has been paid by Connections Academy—the Maryland-based corporation that runs public online charter schools around the country—every year that he’s been in office, all while he’s sponsored and voted for bills that would increase his employer’s bottom line. (Note the misspelling of the word "curriculum" in his financial records.)

On the Payroll, Holding the Gavel

Wingard’s political influence over charter school legislation increased dramatically this session, when he was named co-chair of the House Education Committee. In clearer terms, the Education Committee had a co-chair who was on the payroll of one of the nation’s largest for-profit online charter school companies, which happens to run the largest online charter school in the state. 

After taking the gavel of the committee, Wingard quickly put together a legislative agenda that would greatly expand online charter schools and allow Oregon Connections Academy to take in more taxpayer dollars. When his agenda was blocked by House Democrats, he staged a press conference in which he lambasted his opponents, but never once mentioned that the bills would have put more money into the pockets of his employer.

Now that the legislative session is drawing to a close, Wingard is the chief architect among the House Republicans to resurrect many of his online schools bills in tense, last-minute negotiations. Like his failed committee agenda, these bills would greatly expand the reach of online charter schools, padding the bottom line of companies like Connections Academy at the expense of traditional public schools.

These bills haven’t received any public input or process, but are being negotiated behind closed doors by Wingard and others. Curiously, even though Wingard is known to be the primary force behind these bills, his name isn’t listed on them as a sponsor, as if he’s intentionally trying to avoid getting caught in a conflict of interest.

One thing is clear: Wingard has used his position as a legislator to advance bills that would increase profits for his employer—using taxpayer dollars—but the press has never reported on it. He’s spent the current session sponsoring, carrying, and voting for bills that would increase business for Connections Academy, and he hasn’t publicly announced his apparent financial interest during any of the discussions.

Educating Kids For a Profit

The national Connections Academy corporation has set up online schools in 22 states. Although it is a for-profit company, it sets up the state schools as nonprofits. These nonprofit charter schools receive taxpayer dollars from the state to operate, and the schools then send some of those taxpayer dollars back to the parent company. 

In 2010, Oregon Connections Academy brought in $13.17 million in total revenue, according to the school’s tax forms. $12.54 million of that came directly from taxpayers. It’s unclear exactly how much of that money went back to Connections Academy, Wingard’s employer, but some of it went right back into Wingard’s pocket. It’s difficult to imagine Connections Academy being anything but thrilled with the fact that their paid employee was the co-chair of the House Education Committee.

Most online charter students in Oregon are students of Oregon Connections Academy. Approximately 4,000 students attend school online; 2,600 of them are Connections Academy students, making ORCA the leader of the online charter school movement in Oregon.

Jeff KropfBesides Wingard, the school has other close ties to conservative Oregon politicians. The president of Oregon Connections Academy is Jeff Kropf, former state legislator and current state director of Americans For Prosperity, the corporate-funded arm of the Tea Party movement, seen here in a still from an ad ridiculing retired state employees.

Rob Kremer, the Treasurer of the Oregon Republican Party, takes credit for “spearheading” the creation of Oregon Connections Academy. Kremer is also the founder of the Conservative Majority Project PAC, which raises money for right-wing candidates.

Comments

Model bills from ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. A clearing house for global conglomerate wish lists is not the voice of the people nor consent of the governed. Here's some familiar titles; Public pension reforms & transparency, school saving act, Parent trigger, tax legislation (majority requirement), capital gains tax reform, estate tax reform, tort law reform, minimum wage reform... It appears to be union busting and to tear down all that is sacred to Americans; For example; Americans working good jobs, feeding & educating our school children, paying teachers, fire & police, and honoring pension contracts, fair taxes, post office, Big Bird?
Oregon Alec polititions;
http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php/Oregon_ALEC_Politicians
ALEC Exposed;
http://www.alecexposed.org/wiki/ALEC_Exposed
Moyers & Co (video);
http://billmoyers.com/episode/full-show-united-states-of-alec/

Wingard is really sticking his neck out for a bad reputation.

Our problem, it appears to me, is that the middle and upper management is bloated. We seem to have 1 manger for every 5 teachers...whereas we need to have no more than 1 per every 12 teachers. I have seen an entire management organization here in the Mid Willamette Valley for schools, and with a very expensive administrator for that organization. Let's let Teachers Teach and keep our Principal management teams to the minimum. That is the only way to run a business efficiently (yes I am a mfg. business owner) so why not schools?

I'm interested in the "behind closed doors" part of this. What does that mean? How is that different than how other legislation that is pushed through?

Also, if the taxpayers who voted for representative Wingard are a majority of Republicans, why aren't they asking more questions about another guy who's working the system in order line his pockets with taxpayers' money?

"There is nothing unethical about a legislator advocating for a bill that affects a company with whom he has a financial arrangement as long as it is out in the open for all to see."

I guess that's just how it works then.

Legislators trying to pass bills that they happen to make a profit from - as long as they tell everyone that there's a great deal at stake for them. I wonder why our system's broken?

Thank you Scott, for bring this to our attention and being on KPOJ. Just when you think they can't get any more immoral, they do. I'll be calling tomorrow.
LOHS Mom, Pat Van Orman

"You people are funny. Wingard has only disclosed his affiliation with Connections about a billion times."

Really? Name two. Seriously.

If online charter schools are so great, how about a NOT FOR PROFIT school?
Would be like an online home schooling with technical and materials support..getting the parents involved in their kids learning.
It would avoid the for profit temptation to give the bottom line and its investor's agenda priority over the school's mission and the education of our children. I've seen this happen with for profit human service programs in other need areas.

Rep. Wingard has disclosed his employment with Connections Academy numerous times in committee and on the House Floor. Why doesn't Our Oregon disclose which public employee unions (including the Oregon Education Association), pays its bills?

On line schools are exactly what some students need. This article ignores the fact that these schools turn out very successful students, unlike some of our regular public schools. The reason charter schools and on line schools are becoming more plentiful is because they fill a need not otherwise being met. The days of the education unions buying politicians may be coming to a close.

Every parent should be thanking Wingard for offering a schooling choice.

If charter schools are such a great idea, how about a NOT FOR PROFIT school? It could be staffed by volunteers, getting parents involved in the education of their kids [like a home schooling with technical and materials support].
We have had experience with for profit human service programs. In the end, the bottom line tales priority over the needs of the consumer and the mission of the organization. They have to make a certain per cent profit to meet the requirements of its investors.
Who is invested in these charter school companies?

If there are ANY politicians with courage, they should IMMEDIATELY file an inquiry, at the very least, to the Ethics Committee, if there is one, containing this article, and request an immediate hearing. If no one does this, then they ALL should be voted out of office. I am tired of corrupt politicians in BOTH parties,

You people are funny. Wingard has only disclosed his affiliation with Connections about a billion times. There is nothing unethical about a legislator advocating for a bill that affects a company with whom he has a financial arrangement as long as it is out in the open for all to see.

Wingard has long advocated for school choice policies.

I should have thought that would be a clear cut conflict of interest, and cause Rep. Wingard to be subject to impeachment.
Eldon Rollins

Nice expose! This is outrageous!

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