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Give families more options

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.

The Portland school board recently denied all four requests from charter school applicants who wanted to offer more options for Portland children in the 2008-09 school year.

Charter schools are public schools run by nonprofits on a contract with local school districts.

The arrangement allows charter schools more flexibility in curriculum and staffing, but in return they promise to meet high educational benchmarks and can be forced to close if they fail. Charter schools also must take every child who applies or hold a lottery if there is a waiting list.

Since Oregon's charter school law went into effect in 1999, reaction from the state's school districts has been mixed.

While some districts have welcomed the competition, other districts have worked quietly to undermine the intent of lawmakers. In fact, several large school districts in Oregon have conspicuously few charter schools within their boundaries compared with their smaller district counterparts.

Of the 25 charter sponsorship votes held by Portland Public Schools since 1999, the board approved 11 and rejected 14 - more no votes than all other districts in the state combined.

Portland also refuses to rent its unused and underused buildings to charter schools, which is why only seven of the 11 approved schools have opened their doors.

This year there are 80 charter schools operating in Oregon serving 10,000 students - less than 2 percent of the state's public school population.

But support for charter schools among the PPS board members has been steadily decreasing over the years. Of the 17 charter school applications since 2004, the school board has approved only two.

Press accounts of the recent PPS board meeting described it as a charter school 'smackdown' and 'bizarre.' Portland school board member David Wynde said, 'These are not the times and these are not the places' for adding more school choices, adding, 'I don't believe in a completely free-market system.'

Aside from the obvious point that none of the charter applicants were asking for a free-market system, Wynde did not volunteer as to what better time and what better place there might be for families in the district to be offered better choices for their children's education.

Not only is now apparently not the time for more choices, the PPS board seems to think this is the time for even fewer choices than families have currently.

The board signaled this preference for fewer choices by beginning to talk about restricting transfers within the district. Board members claim that unrestricted transfers between existing public schools might be fostering segregation. But most of the parents who want to leave their 'neighborhood' schools are minorities.

The other reason commonly given for restricting choice is to preserve the district's 'neighborhood' schools. But preserve them for whom?

If parents opt out of their 'neighborhood' school when given the opportunity to choose a different school for their child, why force them to stay?

In reality, what school board members are fighting is a loss of power. If the district serves a smaller percentage of the school-age children in their service territory, then all the adults who run the district system (unions, administrators and education elitists) are less powerful.

It is those interests the PPS board votes to protect when it denies charter applications.

So the bottom line is that fewer choices for families mean that the adults who run the district win. The children continue to lose.

Matt Wingard is director of the School Choice Project for Cascade Policy Institute.