Cascade in the Capitol – Testimony Against Placing Limitations on New Charter Schools (SB 1538)

February 6, 2014

Testimony Against SB 1538 before the Oregon Senate Education and Workforce Development Committee
By Steve Buckstein

Chair Hass and members of the committee, my name is Steve Buckstein. I’m the Senior Policy Analyst and founder of Cascade Policy Institute, a Portland-based free-market think tank.

I’m here to ask you to reject SB 1538.

Chair Hass, the committee just approved SB 1525, which would make it easier for Oregon college students to take online courses from institutions outside the state of Oregon. You noted how fascinating it was that the proposal would break down borders standing in the way of Oregonians having more higher education learning opportunities. That seems non-controversial, and clearly a good thing.

Unfortunately, if you approve the bill we’re discussing now, SB 1538, you’ll be doing the exact opposite. You’ll be building up borders that will stand between Oregon’s Kindergarten through 12th grade students and new public charter school options that might offer the very educational opportunities they want and need.

A few years ago I was watching a Portland Public Schools board meeting where several charter applicants were making their cases to the board. One group wanted to start a school with, what I recall, was a particular arts focus. They’d jumped through all the hoops required of a charter applicant, but when the board members began commenting it became clear that the applicants stood no chance of approval.

One board member looked at the applicants, and at the audience, and stated, “We already have one of those.” She went on to explain that the district already had a school with a similar curriculum focus, implying that obviously they therefore didn’t need any more such schools. One was enough.

SB 1538, brought to you by the current Portland Public School Board, would make it even easier for Portland and other districts to write off competent, innovative charter applicants by simply stating that their proposed schools wouldn’t advance one or more educational goals that the board had identified.

Back when I was about to graduate from a Portland elementary school, I considered attending Benson Polytechnic High School. It was the one Portland public school with an emphasis on technical education, and it seemed to always have a waiting list to get in. I wondered then why the district never opened another Benson type school to meet the obvious need.

Why was “We already have one of those” the mindset then, and why is it the mindset still?

I now believe it’s because board members and administrators don’t have to be concerned about the needs of most students, because most students and their parents don’t have the means to exercise other options, such as moving near a school that better meets their needs, or paying taxes for the public school system and tuition for a private school at the same time.

If SB 1538 becomes law, this mindset of “We already have one of those” could easily morph into “We don’t need even one of those.”

This bill would stifle innovation, and stifle opportunities for students currently “captured”* by their local public schools to find any way out…to find a better fit for their educational needs.

I hope you reject it.


SB 1538 was approved on a 4 to 1 vote in the Committee and will go to the Senate floor for a vote.

Archived audio of the entire February 6, 2014 hearing is here, beginning with the hearing on SB 1525. Senator Hass’s comment about breaking down borders beginning at 08:19 into that hearing. The hearing on SB 1538 begins at 17:20, with public testimony for and against the bill. My oral testimony begins at 51:04.

* Public school districts often try to maintain or increase the percentage of eligible students living within each school’s particular geographic boundaries. This percentage is openly referred to by district officials as the “capture rate.” Anything that could reduce the capture rate of a given district school, such as creation of a new charter school, is seen by those officials as a potential threat to their capture rate goals.

About Steve Buckstein

Senior Policy Analyst and founder.
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9 Responses to Cascade in the Capitol – Testimony Against Placing Limitations on New Charter Schools (SB 1538)

  1. Donna Bleiler says:

    Sorry, but I don’t agree with either bill. SB 1525, making courses available outside Oregon is a minor part of this bill. What is concerning is that OEIB takes over Higher Education Commission responsibilities including data mining student information putting their personal information in jeopardy, and the Governor’s role appointing the members is left to his discretion whether they are voting members or not, giving him total control to load the votes.

    I’m not as enthralled with Charter Schools as Cascade. Hearing from school board members in rural Oregon where there is just one school say that to loose any amount of students would put the school in jeopardy. It seems that school choice people have given up on fixing public schools to enrich education for all and prefer to develop a class-system of schools which engrains in students that public school kids are of the lowest class. I know you think you can prevent that, but human nature says you can’t. I’ve cautioned for years that Charter Schools in Oregon have been targeted by Agenda 21 as ripe for the taking. So, for those concern about socialism in the public schools, guess what. I don’t object to making school transfers easy if a student needs a change to thrive, but all the focus on charter schools for school choice is, in effect, a selfish view and not in the best interest of the students that need the most help.

    • Steve Buckstein says:

      Donna, I agree with you that SB 1525 on balance may not be a good bill from our perspective. I’ve opposed the OEIB from the start (see http://cascadepolicy.org/pdf/pub/12-5-11SteveEdBoardPDF.pdf). In my testimony I was simply trying to make the point that the Chair of the committee seemed to like the aspect of the bill that would break down barriers for Oregon college students, so I would hope he’d realize that SB 1538 does just the opposite for K-12 students.

      As for “giving up on fixing public schools” I think every school choice advocate has their own position. Some have given up, others think that real choice may be the best way to induce the public school system to improve, lest it lose many of its students, and the funding that goes with them, to other alternatives. Charters are pubic schools. They may threaten funding of individual districts, but they don’t threaten the funding of the public school system as a whole. The risk that some schools may close, especially in rural areas, should be outweighed by the benefit to the students of having real educational alternatives.

      I doubt that any school choice supporters believe that they can stop a class system from developing in the public school system. The reality is that such a system started long before there were charter schools or any significant school choice movement. In fact, the movement actually got started in cities like Milwaukee, WI in the late 1980s, where very liberal (leftist) people saw the need to offer choices to the poorest and minority students who they believed were not being served well by the public school system.

    • Don Crawford says:

      Donna,
      Students in public charter schools are public school students. They are no different than students in district run public schools. Often they are students who did poorly or got into trouble in the district run schools. They are seldom the top students–and charter schools cannot be selective, they have to take all comers. The only reason you think this is elite is that (a) you haven’t been in a charter school, and (b) there are so few of them in Oregon that it seems elite. This bill would make that worse. In places where there are a lot of charter school options, so many students attend charter schools that everyone knows someone who does and can easily tell that they are not the cream of the crop. Change may seem disruptive to those in control, but this is America where we are supposed to be free and where we have choice and abundance. If charter schools can run small schools, so can rural school districts. It is just lack of imagination and planning flexibility to think you have to have a certain number of students to run a school. It is a cry of “Wolf” to say that allowing some children to attend a school of choice will destroy the existing district run public schools. Giving freedom to children and parents trapped in unresponsive district run public schools is a matter of simple justice. Some day people will look back on these times and marvel that anyone actually said that it was fair to deny choice to parents and children when it came to their education.

    • Neil Huff says:

      From my reading on the topic I can’t see that charter schools are any better than the district from which they draw their pupils. Aren’t they still held to the same testing regimen and Common Core material as public schools? Must they not accept virtually any student who applies?

      I have a granddaughter, a very talented tennis player, who was home schooled in Virginia from grade one through the 9th. The state of Virginia required she pass the same exams as public school students. In what way can charter schools escape the fate of our public schools? Doesn’t the state subsidize these schools and aren’t impoverished parents offered vouchers at public expense? If these things are true, there is nothing that stops charter schools from suffering from all the problems plaguing public education. It is merely a matter of time.

    • Neil Huff says:

      Ms. Bleiler, I agree with your skepticism that charter schools will fix public education. As you, I think their growth is a certain sign that politicians and I suppose parents as well, have given up on public schools. America’s public school system was a hall mark of our nation’s progress at a time when this idea was generally believed novel and very advanced. Most other nations still relied at that time on private schools (our charter schools, less public monies). In my mind the charter school concept is profoundly regressive.

      In the very poorest countries where my work took me, all schools were ‘charter schools’ of a type. The exceptions were in some countries boarding high school and universities. But school fees are the norm everywhere.

      There is no question that public education is in a critical condition. It didn’t begin failing until the federal govt assumed control from state and local authorities. That occurred coeval with desegregation, the civil rights movement and massive immigration. Is there a relationship? One dare not suggest there is- at least not in a public forum. In fact, I don’t believe any ‘think tank’ or policy wonk dare even to suggest the issue be studied!

      Meanwhile, rather than think deeply and honestly about the various social and shifting demographic issues possibly related to the crisis, we allow the federal govt to impose one costly solution after another and stand about scratching our heads when each in turn fails to deliver. And finally, of course, we fall back on the vouchers, charter schools and the home schooling default position.

  2. Bob Clark says:

    Sorry to hear the vote on SB 1538. If I am on the school board, I want to be able to use charter school approval as leverage in negotiating with the teachers’ union. The union has the upper hand in these negotiations as students and parents do not want their school year disrupted by a strike. The School Board needs more leverage to counter the monopoly structure of their labor supply. Perhaps, though, in theory both school boards and unions oppose charter schools as they are both greedy to maintain their monopolistic command over k-12 education.

    • Steve Buckstein says:

      Bob, I think in reality very few, if any, school boards see charters as leverage in their negotiations with their teachers unions. I know that in Portland, the board and the union have both been opposed to charter expansion. While SB 1538 was requested by the Portland board, I wouldn’t be surprised if the union is quietly applauding it’s likely passage. This won’t get in the way of its strike, it’s just one area where all those with power inside the public school system agree – they both want to maintain the monopoly, while fighting over which adults control how the money flows.

  3. Gordon Fiddes says:

    Here is the written testimony I submitted regarding this issue.

    Testimony against SB 1538
    To the Senate Committee on Education and Workforce Development
    Public Hearing February 6, 2014

    Let us be clear on this: Charter schools are PUBLIC charter schools. Some school districts – ENTIRE school districts – (that is 100%, not 3%) – are solely made up of a public charter school. If traditional school boards are so confident that they know best, why are they afraid of public charter schools and want to limit their expansion? I believe this bill is aimed at traditionalists retaining a near monopoly on public education opportunity because the sponsors want to lock in the traditional educational model to keep public education under their thumb, or their friends’ thumbs.

    Traditional educational methods and systems are being challenged by innovative ideas that may not employ or come from sources approved by the bill’s sponsors’ friends. Parents see the current traditional education outcomes and are looking for options. Taxpayers observe the results and desire better return on investment. Industries need highly qualified applicants and want to work with schools to ensure future success.

    Some people who are entrenched in the traditional educational model view these options as threats to their livelihood. They have a conflict of interest which contradicts the desires of parents and students across this state: superior public education options. This bill’s sponsors feel the need to control the options available in order to maintain control of where and how dollars are invested in education.

    Most public charter schools produce similar or superior results with less tax dollars. School boards and parents should welcome this type of option with open arms. Charter Schools are schools of choice. This bill is a step in the wrong direction. New technologies and understanding of community development show we need to step out of the 1950s. Brick and mortar schools are no longer the solution for 97% of the students in Oregon. Educational options lead to more student success in ways this bill’s sponsors currently must be unable to imagine.

    These are my opinions personally and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of any organization of which I am a member.

    Thank you,
    Gordon Fiddes
    Former Board member of MITCH Charter School (8 years)

  4. Neil Huff says:

    If charter schools must accept all applicants- and with the help of various forms of public funding- anyone can gain admission. What stops the charter school from soon
    having all the problems of public school?. The real issue no one seems willing to even talk about, is the quality of the human material filling up the schools of every description. The country’s demographics are in flux. The people flooding in are from cultures and regions that have never succeeded in creating Great Societies. If charter schools are required to accept all applicants in order to receive licenses and state and Federal aid, they are no different than public schools in essential respects. If the family is poor, badly educated, lacking a strong work ethic and/or headed by a single parent NOTHING a school is going to do will make one iota of difference in outcome.

    I have always felt that requiring parents to pay school fees will help cull the herd, as it were. While the governor’s most recent speech about schools is harrowing in implications. ‘ Children are a community responsibility?’ Really? While funding a path from pre-kindergarten to college is the goal of state education financing? The Lord help us.

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