Charter school could be boon for Sweet Home

The District 55 School Board did the right thing last week when it decided to extend the deadline for People Involved in Education to get its ducks in a row in its attempt to get a charter school up and running in this area next fall.

Over the last several weeks, if you’ve been following our coverage of this issue, you’ll know there’s been a bit of finger-pointing regarding why PIE, which runs the Sand Ridge Charter School in Sodaville, was not able to meet our local district’s requirements for completing contract negotiations for operating the charter school.

Regardless of who was at fault for PIE missing two deadlines District 55 had set as stepping stones toward getting the contract done, the board showed wisdom in keeping the process alive.

If Sweet Home were to get a charter school, this is roughly how it would work: The school would be funded with public money and would be an alternative to the regular public schools.

A private group of parents, educators or community leaders can submit and get approved a charter to run their own school. A charter school receives a contract from the public school district that allows it to be free to be a unique school designed to meet its students’ needs. Curriculum is determined by the charter board, not the local school board.

Charters are usually given for three to five years, where an eye is kept on academic performance. If academic performance lags behind comparable public schools, then the “charter” is pulled and the school is closed.

We believe a charter school could be good for Sweet Home for a number of reasons.

One is that about 30 children from the Sweet Home area attend Sand Ridge, according to parents who are interested in seeing a charter school established here. Viewing it purely from a financial standpoint, that’s money that the Sweet Home district is losing to the Lebanon School District.

Two, charter school parents are sending their children to these schools because they think the kids are getting a better education there. A lot of these parents aren’t ignorant. They’re seeing results, which is why they’re choosing to keep their kids in these schools. The beauty of charter schools is that if they don’t perform as their contracts require or if they don’t meet the expectations of parents, they’re gone.

Charter schools have sparked controversy, including concern from the educational establishment, and have thus inspired research efforts to determine how effective they really are.

One nationwide study, by Harvard University researcher Caroline M. Hoxby, published in December 2004, found that charter school students were more likely to be proficient in reading and math on their states’ exams than student in matched public schools.

Hoxby’s study also found that that proficiency tended to increase the longer the charter school had been in operation and that if state law gave charter schools autonomy and funding equal to at least 40 percent of the total per-pupil funding of regular public schools, the charter school’s proficiency increased even more.

Hoxby also found that economically disadvantaged students tended to do better in charter schools. So have many others.

Hmmm. One of the phrases that frequently pops up at District 55 board meetings is “economically disadvantaged” or similar terms.

A third reason why a charter school would be good for Sweet Home is that parents would be forced to become more involved in their children’s education if they send their kids to this new school. Few teachers would argue against the fact that parents’ involvement makes a big difference in their children’s success in the classroom.

Fourth, one of the benefits of charter schools is that they aren’t as tied to the bureaucracy that dominates public education in the state and in the nation.

Hear it from a teacher who was on the faculty when the nation’s first legislatively authorized charter school opened for high school dropouts in an inner-city neighborhood in St. Paul, Minn., in 1992. She said that flexibility and accountability make her job in the classroom much more rewarding.

“Besides having the chance to create a school that takes into account the approaches we know will work,” Milo J. Cutter said, “the biggest benefit is that we are held accountable. For us, accountability is a daily concern. We listen to what the students want and need, because we ask them. And each day we ask ourselves if we are doing things the best way we can.

“We also have the flexibility to respond. We can change the curriculum to meet these needs as soon as we see them. Anywhere else it would take a year to change. It is much better than anything we have known in the traditional setting.”

Fifth, as houses get built on those 1,000-plus lots the city has approved, we’re going to get more kids in town. This has been a common theme from school officials, who already face crowded schools. A charter school could take some of the pressure off.

The charter school movement has had some black eyes. The movement is young and, as with all democratic enterprises, things can sometimes go south.

A recent, local, example is how the principal at Sand Ridge was accused of taking liberties with the school’s charter by praying in public assemblies and putting too much emphasis on religion in his dealings with students.

After an investigation and a change of leadership, questions about the charter were cleared up and things have progressed smoothly since, close observers say.

Things aren’t great for charter schools in Oregon, a state with an educational establishment and a Legislature that has been somewhat cool to this new wave of educational reform.

Charter schools operate with significantly less funding than their normal public school counterparts and what funding they get passes from the state to the district to the school — a mechanism that generally does not always leave the charter school in an enviable position.

Some critics play the numbers games and argue that test scores at some charter schools are lower, that charter schools attract brighter students and that charter school teachers are less qualified and work for a lot less than their counterparts in regular public schools do, which reflects on their teaching skills or qualifications.

Sweet Home is blessed with many good teachers and administrators, who care about kids and who can make a dollar deliver. When we advocate bringing a charter school to District 55, we’re not saying the system here is rotten.

What we’re saying is that a charter school could make things even better.

The school board needs to continue to keep the door open to a charter school here, whether it’s run by PIE or someone else.

Because in the end, it’s all about the kids.