Christina MartinCascade Commentary

Local Districts Keep Thousands of Oregon Kids Waiting for a Choice
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by Christina Martin

The last week in January is National School Choice Week. Organizations, celebrities and individuals from diverse political persuasions are standing together to demand that we give kids better educational opportunities. School choice stands apart from other reforms, not only in its growing bipartisan support, but also in its ability to deliver results without increasing costs to taxpayers.

Oregon’s charter school law, the state’s only significant school choice reform, has yet to reach its transformative potential because most districts still fail to embrace it. The law allowed the creation of charter schools—public schools operated by non-profit private organizations.

More than a decade after Oregon’s charter school law passed, fewer than 3% of Oregon’s students attend a charter school. This is not for lack of demand, as my recent report, Waiting for Choice, demonstrates. Over 4,700 children were on waiting lists for Oregon’s 108 charter schools last summer. A 2008 poll confirmed even higher demand, showing that 24% of Oregon parents would like to choose a charter school for their kids over any other type of school.

Some have tried to blame charter schools for waiting lists, suggesting that the private sector simply cannot meet kids’ real-world needs. Some have even suggested that none of these schools should exist since some kids are put on waiting lists. Such conclusions are misguided. Thousands more children could attend a school that satisfies their needs and their families’ expectations if school districts would get out of the way and allow it.

The waiting list problem comes from Oregon’s charter law requirement that applicants must ask districts to approve charter schools, which not only compete with district-run schools for students, but also often go against the grain in their approach and style. This has created an expensive, time-consuming and politicized application process.

But why are so many districts inclined against charter schools? School districts fear charter schools will have an “adverse impact” on regular district schools by drawing “too many” students (and accompanying funding) from regular district schools. This fear is reinforced by the OEA (Oregon’s biggest teachers union), which claims on its website that “[t]urning public schools into charter schools diverts scarce resources from public schools, and detracts from the basic right of every child to a quality public education.” Such fears have largely driven the debate surrounding charter schools in Oregon. Yet, they are completely unfounded.

Drawing students away from regular public schools and into charter schools may hurt district adults. However, it does not hurt kids. Charter schools receive substantially less public funding per student than regular district schools—about 55 cents on the dollar, according to a recent Northwest Center for Educational Options report. And when a student transfers to a charter school, regular district schools no longer bear the cost of educating that child. A Cascade Policy Institute report shows that such transfers allow districts to spend more money per student who remains in district-run schools.

Evidence across the nation shows that charter schools are providing at least as good of an education as traditional public schools, if not better, for a cost that is a fraction of what we are spending in regular schools. States that have taken choice a step further, adopting opportunity scholarships or other choice programs, have also seen gains in student performance as well as state savings.

The OEA Vice President said to me on a local TV show last fall:

“We’re not against having charter schools…if they’re held accountable, if they’re transparent, and if they have equal access….You mentioned Waiting for ‘Superman’ and you mentioned choice. Not every student is going to get into one of those schools. And if you watch Waiting for ‘Superman’, at the end of the movie when they are doing the lottery, and to see the students’ faces when they’re rolling those balls around and pulling those names out of a hat, and to know that the student’s name who wasn’t drawn feels like a loser. That’s not where we need to be. We need to be as a nation where every student doesn’t have to worry about a name being pulled, but they have access to a great public school.” (Hanna Vaandering on Populations, October 2010)

I agree that we do need to be a nation that doesn’t force thousands of kids into putting their educational hopes into winning a lottery. Increasing school choice (rather than trapping kids in a local public school based on where they live) is how we can be that kind of nation. Oregon and other states have tried countless reforms within the traditional school model and failed to make significant gains. Those few cities and states that have embraced school choice are blazing a trail, making effective educational gains.

Oregon’s charter schools are transparent, accountable to parents and districts alike, and do not discriminate among students. If the OEA is really about kids and families, the OEA should stand with us and demand that districts increase charter school options, remove district-imposed enrollment caps, and embrace other educational options to allow every student access to a school that meets his or her needs. Oregon’s kids can’t afford to wait any longer.

Christina Martin is a policy analyst for the School Choice Project at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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