Oregon charter school debate yields little progress

SALEM — Debate over charter schools has stirred ideological rancor and stalled other education issues not just for this year's Legislature but for the past several years.

The Oregonian newspaper reports that lawmakers this session have held nearly two dozen hearings and work sessions on the topic, but only one charter school bill successfully moved through a legislative chamber.

Over the past five years, lawmakers have proposed more than 40 bills focusing on charter schools. They passed only five laws, three of which had little impact on the way schools operate, The Oregonian reported.

Charter schools are semi-independent schools that serve about 3 percent of Oregon's public school students.

Supporters say they're a key avenue to education reform and need more resources. Skeptics say they destabilize traditional schools and don't produce better student achievement.

Both critics and supporters, however, say state leaders have let political wrangling overwhelm the issue.

Rep. Betty Komp, a Woodburn Democrat, said there are bigger education needs and issues than those raised around charters.

"How do we keep kids in school and have them ready for the work force we so desperately need? That's the question we need to be asking," said Komp, a co-chairwoman of the Joint Ways and Means education subcommittee.

"We do want to see some of these reforms in Oregon. But having the conversation at all, that is an important step. It's where we start," said House education co-chairman Matt Wingard, who defends the time spent on them. He leads a public relations firm that contracts with the state's largest online charter school.

Corvallis Democrat Sara Gelser told The Oregonian there's not enough political will to push forward a bill she sponsored that would determine how online charter schools should operate in the state.

"I am disappointed we haven't been able to do more for parents and kids to give them certainty," Gelser said.

Gelser's frustration reflects the partisan politics of an evenly split House, as well as the ideological differences between those who want to give charter schools more power and those who believe they need to be more tightly regulated.

Cindy McGraw, who leads a statewide online charter school parent group, said families are paying the price for legislators' inaction. "I think we started making headway, but it's been tough," she said.

Parents say they want clear answers and direction from state leaders on what charter schools will look like in Oregon.

Every year, for example, the state's two oldest full-time online charter schools must petition the state for waivers to continue operating while they wait for a permanent legislative solution, The Oregonian reported.

"The political polarization has only marginalized the thousands of kids, parents and teachers who are working in those schools," said Kaaren Heikes, executive director of the Northwest Center for Education Options, which represents most of the state's 108 charter schools.

But charter school policy issues are likely to take a back seat, as lawmakers begin hashing out details of the state budget.

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