Independent, Yes, but Regulations Still Apply

Article excerpt

Byline: Anne Williams The Register-Guard

Oregon's 87 charter schools spring from a common set of rules.

The controversial, predominantly Republican-backed 1999 law allowing their creation intended them to be a "legitimate avenue for parents, educators and community members to take responsible risks to create new, innovative and more flexible ways of educating children within the public school system."

Charter schools are sponsored through local school districts or, in rare cases, the state Board of Education. They have their own boards of directors, and are subject to the same open records and meetings laws as other public schools.

But because they aren't directly controlled by districts, they enjoy greater autonomy than regular public schools over instruction and operations.

Still, they must adhere to many of the same regulations. For instance, charter school students must take the full complement of Oregon's standardized achievement tests, with those scores serving as the basis for state and federal rankings.

Also, charter school teachers must meet the federal definition of "highly qualified" in their subject area - though only half at any given charter school must be state-certified. There's no requirement that employees be part of a collective bargaining unit, and teachers at only one-fourth of Oregon's charter schools are unionized.

The law sets a minimum funding level for charter schools, and only a handful of sponsor districts provide more than that. For students in grades kindergarten through 8, districts must pass along to the charter school 80 percent of the state's average per-pupil allocation of approximately $6,150; for high school students, it's 95 percent.

Most charter schools share the characteristics noted above, yet Oregon's charter menu could hardly be more eclectic. In Lane County alone, students can choose from a Montessori K-8; a military-style secondary school; a K-12 school that provides courses only in cyberspace; and a secondary school where kids attend classes at a glass blowing studio, a bakery and a yurt in Alton Baker Park, among other locales.

Generally, though, they've taken one of four forms in Oregon (with some hybridization among them):

The Startup School. These schools typically begin in grassroots fashion, with outside groups of parents and educators proposing a school they believe will fill a niche. At the time these schools apply for a federal planning grant - the first step on the path to becoming a charter school - they're an idea on paper. All three of Eugene's charter schools - Ridgeline Montessori Public Charter School, The Village School and the Network Charter School - fit this category.

Some start-up schools, including Fern Ridge's West Lane Technical Learning Center, have been launched by school districts themselves. In most cases, their employees remain district employees, and therefore part of collective bargaining units.

The Conversion School. These schools already exist in some form at the time they seek charter school grants and status. Some, like Child's Way Charter School in Cottage Grove, were previously private alternative education programs that took students by referrals. Others were district magnet programs or schools. Such would be the case with Springfield's Academy of Arts and Academics, a three-year-old, arts-focused high school that has applied for a charter-school planning grant.

The Rural School. Paisley, in southeast Oregon, blazed the trail for this model, in which tiny, rural districts with a single school serving students in grades K-12 in effect "charter" themselves. In the case of Paisley, that provided a badly needed infusion of grant funds and opened the door to several innovative partnerships and programs, including a cattle operation and a rainbow trout grow-and-release program. Both the Elkton and Triangle Lake districts - which, like Paisley, have struggled with falling enrollment and tight budgets - are seeking charter school planning grants in the next round of awards. …