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New charter school: No.

Byline: The Register-Guard

THE EUGENE School Board risks alienating both ends of the political spectrum if it decides tonight to deny the Eugene Children's Peace Academy's application to operate as a charter school. The board's first obligation, however, is to promote the well-being of all children in the Eugene School District - and existing educational programs are already too fragile to withstand even the slight weakening that would result from the Peace Academy's approval.

The Bush administration and Republicans in the Oregon Legislature are strong partisans of choice in education, placing them in an odd alliance with the Peace Academy.

The conservative argument for choice stems from a conviction that public education is failing, and that reform requires breaking school officials' and teachers' unions' monopoly on curriculum and instruction. The federal government provides start-up grants for charter schools, and in 1999 the state Legislature approved a bill allowing them to receive public school funds provided they meet strict criteria.

The Peace Academy may not be what President Bush and legislative Republicans had in mind when they opened the door to charter schools. The academy's sponsors seek a charter as a means to gain the administrative freedom and financial support they need to create an alternative to the existing public school system, which they believe is too firmly rooted in violent modern culture. The academy's supporters are in full accord, however, with the stated aims of the charter school movement: to encourage experimentation, flexibility and choice in public education.

The Eugene School District already offers more choices than can be found in most public school systems, with its variety of alternative schools and its open enrollment policy. The district's current challenge is to sustain its existing choices, rather than to offer new ones. At a time when the district is closing schools, any charter school proposal must be judged in terms of its potential to further weaken the public school system.

Under Oregon law, charter schools at the elementary level are entitled to 80 percent of state funds distributed on a per-pupil basis; the local school district that grants the charter retains the other 20 percent. Charter schools can educate children for less partly because up to half of their teachers can be uncertified by the state. The 80-20 split may sound like a money-making proposition for school districts, but not all costs follow students out the door when they enroll in charter schools.

At least some of the students enrolled in a charter school such as the Peace Academy could be expected to come from other schools within the district, depriving those schools of their per-pupil funds. Any additional drain on enrollment would threaten the ability of Eugene's existing schools to offer a broad range of programs, or even to remain open. The Eugene School Board should not risk sacrificing any of the schools it has - many of which are among the state's best - for the benefit of one whose record, however promising it may be, is unproven.

State law allows school boards to evaluate charter applications on the basis of "whether the value of the public charter school is outweighed by any directly identifiable, significant and adverse impact on the quality of public education of students" in the district. Superintendent George Russell, in recommending that the Peace Academy's application be denied, found that such adverse impacts could be identified. He also raised questions about the school's ability to meet its curricular goals while also meeting state standards.

The Peace Academy, anticipating the possibility of rejection in the Eugene School District, has also applied to the Bethel School District for a charter. The Bethel district has a growing student enrollment, and charter schools might offer relief from crowding. Either district would have to determine whether the Peace Academy proposal is educationally and financially sound. But in the Eugene District, the academy's application suffers the defect of poor timing - and that defect is serious enough to warrant its rejection.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Proposal would weaken other Eugene schools; Columns
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Column
Date:Feb 26, 2003
Next Article:Superintendent search is model for involvement.

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