Portland, Ore., Chief Calls for All-Charter District

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The superintendent of the Portland, Ore., schools wants the state to grant charter status to his entire 57,000-student district.

Superintendent John E. Bierwirth proposed the idea late last month as part of a series of changes designed to give Portland more control over its schools. Other proposals include an end to outdated rules and regulations and rewards for performance and efficiency, Mr. Bierwirth said.

"The district wants the same freedom to propose rules and regulation in the district as the state board of education does for schools in the entire state," Mr. Bierwirth said.

If the proposal is approved, Portland apparently would be the first school system in the nation to be granted a districtwide charter.

There are a few districts nationwide in which all the schools are charter schools. Such schools operate with public funding but are not subject to the same regulations as other public schools. Instead, they typically operate under a contract with a school board, state education department, or other charter-granting body. The charter school concept has attracted teachers, parents, scholars, and politicians--many of whom see charters as a way to rejuvenate public schools. (See Education Week, Nov. 29, 1995.)

Lew Frederick, the spokesman for the Portland district, said the schools there are seeking freedom from some state rules that deal with scheduling, curriculum, and financing.

Twenty states, including California and Michigan, have charter school laws on the books, and the Illinois legislature has cleared a charter school bill that is awaiting Gov. Jim Edgar's signature.

In 1995, Oregon Rep. Patti Milne tried to get a charter school bill through the legislature that would have allowed an unlimited number of charter schools. State schools Superintendent Norma S. Paulus and others fought against the bill's passage, and it eventually died. Currently, there is no charter school law in Oregon.

In the absence of such a law, the Portland district is seeking the permission of the state board of education to be freed from much current regulation.

Greg McMurdo, the deputy state superintendent for public instruction, said last week that he could not predict what would happen with the proposal. "Since this is the first district that's ever proposed this, we're treading on new ground," he said.

Charters Elsewhere

Earlier this year, the 1,200-student Montabella district in Edmore, Mich., decided to allow its five schools to begin the process of converting to charter schools. That plan is awaiting the final approval of the school board in July. (See Education Week, Jan. 10, 1996).

In California, two Fresno County districts--Pioneer and Kingsburg--which together have six schools, have required their schools to become charter schools. The California charter school law, passed in 1992, allows for 100 such schools statewide. The state reached that limit last fall.

In Portland, Mr. Bierwirth's proposal comes amid budget woes. The school board is trying to cut about $15 million from next year's budget--from roughly $319 million to $304 million. The district and its 4,000-member teachers' union are negotiating a contract.

Mr. Bierwirth said that teachers would play an important role in any charter status.

James K. Sager, the president of the Portland Teachers Association, said that though the union is not opposed to the superintendent's idea, it has some concerns.

"What we are most concerned with is whether all students within the public school system would have equal access, rich or poor," he said. "Whether employees in that system would have the same right to be represented."

Mr. Bierwirth applied March 1 for a federal grant to pay for the first committees that would work toward forming a charter district. If the grant is approved, the superintendent said, volunteers and teachers will spend at least a year suggesting ideas on how to make a charter district run smoothly.

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