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Charter proposals appear doomed

Portland school board likely to follow panel's vote
by: L.E. BASKOW, Doug Morgan and the two other members of the charter school subcommittee have recommended that the school board deny the bids of two charter schools.

After months of public review, it appears all but certain that the Portland school board will reject the two remaining charter-school proposals - one focusing on character and ethics and the other on architecture, construction and engineering.

The school board's subcommittee on charter schools voted 3-0 Tuesday to recommend that the full seven-member board deny both proposals. Board members Dilafruz Williams, David Wynde and Doug Morgan spent an hour on each proposal, reviewing the applicants' answers to their earlier questions.

They ultimately decided that both applicants didn't show enough evidence of financial stability or the capability to offer a full curriculum, or prove that there is sufficient demand for their program.

The proposed Academy of Character and Ethics seemed like 'a very high risk for failure,' Morgan said after reviewing its financial plan, which relied on fundraising for a third of its budget - more than other charter schools. 'In fact, I would bet on it,' he added. 'I would bet that this school would fail,' based on its financial plan alone.

The ACE academy at first drew controversy in the community when it announced its intentions to open in an empty part of Jefferson High School. Critics charged that the school, supported by Mt. Olivet Baptist Church, would violate separation of church and state laws. The school's backers then found another location, in one building of the Holy Cross Catholic Church, 5227 N. Bowdoin St.

But board members just barely touched on this issue Tuesday, after Cliff Brush, the district's charter school coordinator, said that the ACE applicants have made assurances that their program wouldn't have a religious influence in the school, and their assurances appear to be consistent with state law.

The other proposal was submitted by a nonprofit called the Oregon Building Congress, a Wilsonville-based organization that integrates academic and technical learning. OBC currently offers supplemental programs in the Portland school district, but recently proposed to open its own charter school called the Academy for Architecture, Construction and Engineering.

OBC secured a location that another charter school now occupies: the Leadership and Entrepreneurship Public Charter High School opened last summer at 8111 N.E. Holman St. with a three-year charter contract approved by the district.

But the OBC applicants say they had a verbal agreement with the Northwest College of Construction, which owns the facility.

Looking at school choice

The issue of space is a moot point now, since the subcommittee found flaws with various other parts of the proposal. That included a concern that the curriculum was still a work in progress, and that about $100,000 to fund the language arts and math curriculum was not budgeted. 'There's gaps,' Wynde said. 'The plan, the depth, the strategy's just not there.'

Added Williams: 'How in the world are you going to sell your curriculum if you don't know what you're offering? You can't just say, 'Trust me.' It's a huge risk to take.'

The board members said the district wants to continue its partnership with OBC, and will ask Superintendent Vicki Phillips to look into the current and potential capacity for construction and related industry programs in the district, and report back to the full board.

Some teachers at Benson Polytechnic High School, in Northeast Portland, had quietly worried that any new construction-related charter school would steal students from Benson.

That's a common debate that will move to center stage in the next year, as the board takes up the issue of school choice and reviews its current transfer and enrollment policy.

Members will look at issues of choice, equity and diversity, which are hot topics because while 84 percent of the city's school-age kids attend Portland Public Schools, only half of the city's high schoolers attend their neighborhood school.

The rest attend private schools, are home-schooled or transfer to another school in the district, such as a charter school or a magnet school.

For now, a board subcommittee is looking at making some technical changes to the transfer system, such as making it more user-friendly - as recommended by a city/county audit this past summer.

To set the stage, a City Club of Portland forum today will focus on the issue of school choice on a statewide level.

The debate, 'School Choice: Liberty and Equity,' will be moderated by Cynthia Guyer, the Portland Schools Foundation executive director, and will feature two leaders in the field.

Issues play out in debate

Peter Cookson, dean of the graduate school of education at Lewis and Clark College will face off with Rob Kremer, president of the Oregon Education Coalition, which led the effort to pass Oregon's charter school law in 1999.

Kremer and Cookson will discuss the concept of school choice and the impact on Oregon schools, including the progress and movement of charter schools.

'My basic perspective is that school choice is one alternative to improve public education, but I really believe we need a strong public school system for a strong democracy,' said Cookson, whose 2003 book is called 'Expect Miracles: Charter Schools and the Politics of Hope and Despair.'

Cookson said no data has shown that charter schools have a clear advantage over other public schools. But he says he doesn't oppose all creative solutions to education. 'If someone comes along with a good idea, I'm all for it,' he said. 'But it has to be grounded in true academics. I'm worried that it gets a little 'boutique-y.' '

Kremer, a consultant who helps Oregon charter school organizers prepare their proposals, said school boards statewide are viewing charter schools as competition to their neighborhood schools. 'If a school district wants to stop a proposal, they're getting better at doing that,' he said. 'They're creating a case in the record for a basis to deny it.'