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