Oregon Districts Launch Charters with Federal Funding

Amid budget constraints and continued pressure to reform public education, Oregon Trail School District in Oregon has launched their own charter school, taking advantage of federal charter school grants worth up to half a million dollars to create a rare hybrid: the district-initiated charter school, writes Nicole Dungca at The Oregonian.

So far, two Clackamas County districts have taken the innovative step of looking to access the extra funds and flexibility that the state's charter laws can provide.

"Budgets are tight right now," said Debbie Johnson, the Oregon Trail School District's director of teaching and learning.

"This gives us a revenue source where we can make and create those innovative school options for our families."

Currently, charter school enrollment tops two million, according to a report from The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, and it shows no signs of slowing down.

In the state of Oregon, charters make up almost ten percent of public schools.

Traditionally, there's a struggle between school boards and charter organizations – and these difficulties can be so deep that in some cities, such as Chicago, New York City and Los Angeles, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have had to pour millions into promoting formal district-charter compacts to encourage collaboration.

But now, districts, like those in Oregon, are finding the federal startup funds that come with a charter can be a life-saver.

Dungca cites the case of the rural Elkton School District, which recently stayed afloat amid declining enrollment and stagnant state funding after converting its K-12 school to charter status to capture the federal grants.

Advocates of the initiative say districts offer management experience, which helps avoid the logistics that trip up some newcomers – such as in the case of Portland's REAL Prep Charter Academy, whose leaders failed to have a complete curriculum and classrooms ready for the school year, leading Portland schools officials to pull its funding.

But critics say that charter schools should be more independent and districts shouldn't use the grants to just simply cash-in and start programs instead of truly autonomous schools.

Todd Zeibarth, a vice president at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said:

"On the one hand, it's good that school districts can see charters as one tool to improve education.

"But I think there is some concern about district-initiated charters just in terms of, ‘How independent are these schools that they're creating?'"

01 11, 2012
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