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Oregon Charter School Report Card: The history, progress and future of charter schools in Oregon

School Choice Project

INTRODUCTION
by Steve Buckstein

In 1991, two distinct educational reform paths took off in Oregon. That was the year Cascade Policy Institute was founded, with education as a chief policy priority. It was also the year that the Oregon Legislature passed the “Oregon Education Act for the 21st Century,” known informally as “The Katz Bill” after then-House Speaker Vera Katz.

Cascade’s efforts, often described under the broad category of “school choice,” identified an inflexible system as the main problem facing Oregon’s school children. Thus, we focused on reform ideas that would: 1) give educators greater opportunities to succeed, and 2) give families greater choice in selecting their schools.

The charter school option marries three reform approaches: opportunity for educators, choice for families and accountability for schools.

The Katz Bill took a different approach, emphasizing accountability in the school system. It focused on setting achievement standards and initiated a battery of tests to gauge student progress. Critics of the state’s reform approached charged that it was painfully slow, mired in bureaucracy and did little more than show just how badly schools were failing to educate students year after year, without actually holding those schools accountable.

Fifteen years later, the Katz Bill’s legacy has grown dim as the State Superintendent of Instruction recently announced plans to abandon the controversial Certificates of Initial and Advanced Mastery that developed out of that 1991 legislative reform effort.

Yet one reform idea from the school choice camp was given a chance with the passage of charter school legislation in 1999, and it continues to show to promise today. The charter school option marries the three reform approaches described above: opportunity for educators, choice for families and accountability for schools.

“A charter school is a public school that receives public funds under a written agreement — a charter — that outlines student performance goals and educational services the public charter school will provide. Charters are excluded from many statutes and rules guiding traditional public schools. In exchange for this freedom from regulation, the public charter school guarantees inits written agreement (charter) certain levels of student performance.”

Now that charter schools have existed in Oregon for about seven years, we believe it’s time to issue a report card on their progress. This report includes both national and state charter school history, a look at the research comparing test scores in charter schools to their regular public school counterparts, two analyses of how successful the charter movement has been in Oregon, and recommendations for improvement.

Cascade helped launch Oregon’s charter school debate in 1993, while the national charter school movement was still in its infancy. We brought one of the few national charter school experts, Ted Kolderie, from Minnesota to meet with key Oregon education and business leaders to talk about adopting a harter school program in our state.

By 1999 the groundwork was laid for successful legislation authorizing Oregon charter schools. Cascade’s Charter Policy Handbook was a key resource in that effort. The Handbook was written by the Oregon Charter School Task Force, anindependent group composed of “friends of the charter movement” and chaired by Richard Meinhard. It was hand-delivered to all 90 Oregon legislators who would soon vote on our state’s charter law.

The Handbook suggested that the most promising way to motivate the public school system to create needed innovation and promising educational practices was through the use of public charter schools. It set out four principles for theframework of a charter school system in Oregon, which were:

Charter schools are exempt from many rules that apply to traditional public schools. In exchange for this freedom, the school guarantees in its charter certain levels of student performance.

1. Autonomy — Charter schools must be separate andindependent from local school district control.

2. Multiple sponsors — Other public bodies besides the localschool board should be able to charter schools.

3. Accountability in exchange for deregulation — Charter schools must be accountable both to families and to the public in return for being released from many of the regulations that restrict regular public schools.

4. Public schools of choice — Charter schools must be open to allstudents, tuition free, secular, and under public oversight.

The 1999 Oregon legislature passed, and the Governor signed, a charter law that, depending on who is asked, went a little or a long way toward adopting the philosophy and principles set out in theOregon Charter Policy Handbook.


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About the authors:

Steve Buckstein is senior policy analyst at Cascade Policy Institute. He helped found Cascade 1991, and served as its president until 2004. He writes and speaks both in Oregon and nationally on a range of policy issues including economic development, taxation and budgets and education reform. Prior to founding Cascade Mr. Buckstein served on the board of Oregonians for Cost-Effective Government, was a candidate for Oregon State Treasurer in 1988, and worked for nineteen years as an investment broker in Portland. He also helped run the nation’s first state-wide school choice initiative campaign in 1990. He earned both his BS in physics and his MBA from Oregon State University.

Rob Kremer is president of the Oregon Education Coalition and executive director of the Oregon Public Charter School Service Center. He was a member of the Oregon Charter School Task Force and has been a legislative consultant on school issues in the 1997, 1999, 2001, 2003 and 2005 sessions. He has consulted on charter school start-up issues with a number of Oregon school districts, and works with the Arthur Academy charter schools that have opened charter schools in David Douglas, Reynolds and Woodburn school districts and will open a school in Portland in September 2005. He was a candidate for Oregon Superintendent of Public Instruction in 2002. He earned his BA in Economics from Willamette University and his MBA from University of Chicago.

John Liljegren is now the chief operating officer for Mastery Learning Institute, which operates four Arthur Academy Charter Schools in Oregon and plans to add more. For several years he was field director of the Oregon Public Charter School Service Center where he assisted and advocated for more than 35 charter school applicants and operating schools. He also served two years as accountability coordinator for Oregon, under a contract with the League of Oregon Charter Schools, organizing and leading the process to develop an accountability plan that can be used by charter schools throughout the state. Mr. Liljegren joined the Service Center after a 14-year career in commercial leasing, which followed seven years practicing law. He has a bachelors degree from North Park College, and a law degree from the University of California at Berkeley.

Richard Meinhard, Ph.D. is a developmental psychologist who consults with public and private organizations as executive director of the Institute for Developmental Sciences. He chaired the Oregon Public Charter School Taskforce, which wrote the Oregon Charter Policy Handbook in 1999. He earned his B.A. in Music Education from University of Northern Iowa, his M.A. in Educational Administration from University of California and his Ph.D. in Education from University of Iowa. Dr. Meinhard has authored a number of publications for Cascade Policy Institute where he serves as an Academic Advisor.

About Cascade Policy Institute: Founded in 1991, Cascade Policy Institute is Oregon’s premier policy research center. Cascade’s mission is to explore and promote public policy alternatives that foster individual liberty, personal responsibility and economic opportunity. To that end, the Institute publishes policy studies, provides public speakers, organizes community forums and sponsors educational programs. Cascade Policy Institute is a tax-exempt educational organization as defined under IRS code 501(c)(3). Cascade neither solicits nor accepts government funding, and is supported by individual, foundation and business contributions. Nothing appearing in this document is to be construed as necessarily representing the views of Cascade or its donors, or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before any legislative body. The views expressed herein are the author’s own. Copyright 2005 by Cascade Policy Institute. All rights reserved.

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