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Promise is only illusion

TWO VIEWS • Charter schools attract both foes and friends
by: JIM CLARK, In a pre-kindergarten class at Southwest Charter School, Clara Michel, 5, displays her drawing in show and tell, with teacher Mary Esterline offering encouragement. Charter schools seem to attract as many detractors as they do proponents.

Our neighborhood public schools, open to all and providing equal educational opportunity to all, regardless of race, income or religion, are a legacy of the common schools movement of the mid-19th century.

The movement, bearing the fruits of the Enlightenment, saw schools as the 'nursery of freemen' and a key foundation of democracy.

Today, our public schools struggle under the burden of testing and sanctions imposed by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, and Oregon's school funding remains inadequate in the wake of the state's taxpayer revolt of the 1990s.

Against this backdrop, the enlightened vision of common schools is under attack from a movement that would balkanize our public schools into insular communities looking out for themselves without regard for the greater common good.

The charter schools movement began in 1988, and today 40 states have laws allowing charter schools. While they vary state to state, the general concept is the same: Groups of parents and educators can form their own schools and get public funding.

In Oregon, charter schools are sponsored by local school districts or the Oregon Department of Education. Sponsors can terminate charter schools for several very specific reasons or for gross failure to fulfill approved charters, but otherwise have no oversight.

Charter schools hold out a glimmering illusion of progressive possibilities in education to families fed up with teach-to-the-test methodologies and what some perceive to be excessive bureaucracy in school administration.

But this illusion presents a false choice between 'failing' neighborhood schools and 'progressive' charters. In Portland, charter school students appear whiter and wealthier than the general student population, and they would appear less likely to have special needs.

This skimming effect contributes to racial isolation and the concentration of poverty in our neighborhood schools.

Up to half of the teachers in a given charter need not be certified, and staff are exempt from the union contracts of the sponsoring district. Many people recognize the widespread unionization of educators as having professionalized teaching.

Any step backward in this regard puts our children's education in jeopardy and diminishes the voice of teachers in our educational policy discussions.

Despite the promise of a better education, a 2004 U.S. Department of Education study found students in charter schools less likely to meet state performance standards than those at traditional public schools.

This nation was born in the Enlightenment and built upon the greatness of common civic institutions. It is important to consider the charter schools movement as part of a larger libertarian, anti-government movement that seeks to dismantle these foundational democratic institutions, one piece at a time.

Charter schools may offer a small number of families a way to better their lives. But the cost to society of replicating this on a large scale would be devastating.

If every family currently sending their children to charter schools would instead devote an hour a week to their neighborhood public school, remarkable things could happen.

Better yet, if they would join together with other families campaigning for full funding of our schools, an end to punitive test and sanction regimes, and equitable distribution of educational investment, the benefit would be immeasurable - not just for their children, but for the greater common good.

Steve Rawley, a North Portland father and neighborhood schools activist, blogs at morehockeylesswar.org.