Committee studying Oregon charter schools

PORTLAND — After 10 years in action, state leaders and charter school advocates are launching a review of Oregon's charter school law.

Created in the 1999 legislative session, supporters said charters would increase the diversity of programs within public education while giving parents and students more alternatives. Still traditional educators worried they would lose control and money to schools not bound by the same rules.

Over the past few years, school districts have been asking more questions about certain aspects of the law, said Lori Sattenspiel, legislative and public affairs specialist for the Oregon School Boards Association. They weren't finding answers to those questions and that's what, in part, prompted the OSBA to initiate a review of the state law.

Bobbie Regan, a Portland School Board member, is chairing the committee and said the committee's work is an opportunity to examine a law that has had a tremendous impact on the state. More than 16,000 kids attend over 100 charter schools.

And there have been some controversial issues around charter schools recently as many have debated the role of online learning in charters and the unexpected spurt of school districts with only one school turning into charter districts.

"Some things are working well," Regan said. "Others aren't working as well. This is an opportunity to look at those issues that have come up, to talk about things that were never envisioned when the law was started."

While the group isn't expected to suggest major changes to the law, they will likely discuss issues related to student transportation, governance, funding and special education.

The group met for the first time in January and begins monthly meetings in March. The committee made up of school district leaders, school board members, charter school parents, leaders and advocates as well as state legislators is expected to issue a report and recommendations in September.

"I think it's always good to get the key stakeholders around the table so we better understand where others are coming from," said Kaaren Heikes, executive director of the Northwest Center for Education Options. "We're not going to be discussing big changes or a major overhaul but I think there's value for us to get clarification on key areas such as special education."

Charter schools typically are run by a group of parents, teachers or community members with their own board of directors and budget managers — at arm's length to school districts. They operate free from many state regulations, but must meet the same state and federal academic performance standards as traditional schools.

Charter schools are one of the nation's fastest-growing avenues of education reform. There are nearly 5,000 charter schools around the nation serving about 1.3 million students. In Oregon, an average of 11 new charter schools open each year.

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