Are Charter Schools Really the Bad Guy?


In honor of National Charter Schools Week, I decided to look into why charter schools often have a bad reputation.

If you search through the websites for Portland charter schools, you see the same perks: smaller classes, more student-teacher interaction, parent involvement, and attention to students who need a different learning environment than is offered by traditional public schools. Education advocates know that these characteristics can dramatically improve student learning. So why are charter schools so vilified?

The main concerns with charter schools have to do with the belief that they strip funding from traditional schools and do not get better results in terms of graduation or test scores. Additionally, some officials feel frustrated that there is so much debate over charter schools when they only serve a small percent of Portland Public School students.

When almost every school struggles financially, allocating resources to charter schools could be seen as wasteful. Charter schools struggle to stay afloat with the small funding they are given—80% of what traditional students bring in for kindergarten-8th graders, and 95% for high schoolers. Charter schools are not entitled to other public funding, so the inequities between traditional and charter schools are even larger than these figures reveal.

Other interesting statistics on charter funding can be found here:

KNOVA Reynolds Charter School in Gresham must close 11 days early this year because of a lack of funding ( For a school that is already struggling to help kids meet benchmarks, this may have a significant impact.

But are the charter schools really the bad guy? To me, it seems like rather than holding charter schools up as the system that is failing, perhaps the district should look at the ways that traditional schools could use some of the methods employed by charter schools to improve learning conditions for traditional students. I find it illogical that charter schools would be demonized for having low success rates when many students who fail in traditional settings are asked to perform differently on the same tests, just in a different, less-funded settings. Essentially, charter schools attempt to address the failings of traditional schools with less money to do so, and little support from a district that seems like they wish the charters didn’t exist.

Additional resources:

A recent article from the Huffington Post discusses a similar funding issue:

How Oregon ranks in charters nationally:

Those interested in advocating for charter education should check out the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools at


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Back to School: Learning, Knowing, Sharing, Voting, and Acting in Fall 2012

After a few weeks on vacation from blogging, I’m back!  I spent the summer teaching educational equity courses in partnership with Upward Bound, the 9th Grade Counts Program, the CJCC Urban Day Camp, Puentes, and James John SUN School programs.  I also spent a great deal of time at the playground, the library, the community center pool, and the farmer’s market with my family.  I agonized over preschool options for my daughter, strategized changes in my teaching, and thought a lot about what it means to encourage deeper and more local civic engagement.  This season of blog posts is going to be a lot of fun and very focused on (1) providing information that will allow readers to be educated voters on issues that impact kids and schools, (2) showcasing student voices, and (3) keeping us all tapped in to current education happenings in Portland and beyond.  I’ll also be writing about how to get more involved in being an active community member and advocate for local schools and kids.

So, to get things started, let’s talk about what you  need to know to be in the know in Fall 2012:

  • Many Oregon classrooms (read about Beaverton classrooms here) are overcrowded as they start the 2012-2013 school year.  The reason?  Massive system-wide budget cuts have reduced teaching staff.
  • All eyes are on this year’s kindergarten kids.  The new promise of Governor Kitzhaber’s overarching education plan for Oregon is that 100% (yes, 100%) of these kindergarten students will graduate from successful high school experiences.  We’ve got a long way to go.
  • Oregon teachers have a mandate to work harder to teach Oregon students to be strong writers. Writing scores from last year indicate that students are struggling more with writing than other core subjects like math, reading, and science.
  • Schoolhouse Supplies gathered donations to give free backpacks and school supplies to hundreds of low income students.  Wonderful organization!  Check out how to get involved year-round here:
  • In case you hadn’t noticed (ha!), we’re in an election season.  The RNC and DNC revealed a few things about each presidential candidate and his views on education.  See ideas for integrating information on the election (and civic engagement in general) here.
  • The Portland State University has a great resource guide on national as well as local issues that will be up for the vote in November. In terms of what will impact local kids and schools, the upcoming PPS bond measure is a major item to become educated about.  I’ll be posting more in the next few weeks on this.  Also important to local kids is a vote for more stable library funding in Multnomah County.  Check out more information here.


What other issues are impacting schools in your neighborhood?  What kinds of volunteer work are you plotting for the 2012-2013 school year?  How will you become a more engaged community member as kids head back to school?

As always, I welcome your thoughts and look forward to an exciting fall!


Portland Public Schools: Bond Measure, For Better or Worse (by Guest Student Blogger Maria Baker)

NOTE: The following is a post from guest student blogger Maria Baker, who volunteered this summer through the James John SUN Program and participated in my UNST 421: Summer Youth Enrichment course.

Portland Public Schools are not exactly known for providing excellent education. There is constant debate over how to improve low state test scores and graduation rates. An upcoming 482 million dollar bond proposal for Portland Public Schools might be just what they need. The average age of a public school in America is about forty years old; this is a point of embarrassment as with age come pest infestations, leaks in pipes and roofs, hazardous materials like lead and asbestos and overfilled classrooms. To add insult to injury, Portland’s average age for schools is about sixty-five years. This is why the bond proposal to be voted on in the fall is so important.

Nobody wants to be put in an unsafe situation but that’s what thousands of students are subjected to each and every day they go to school here in Portland. If an earthquake were to hit Portland, many of our public schools would not stand a chance. About seventy million from the bond would go the help twenty-six schools remodel for seismic strengthening and improving roofs. They are necessary repairs if we want students to have the chance to learn in a safe environment.

There are four schools in Portland that are in such a state of disrepair that they must be replaced completely. Grant, Franklin, and Roosevelt high schools and Faubion K-8 would need 278 million dollars from the bond for the modernizations. These are the schools that need our help the most. They are literally falling apart, and they hinder students from learning at their greatest potential. Not only are the buildings dangerous but they are inefficient. After controlling for poverty, Students score about 10 percentile points lower on state tests if they attend a school in sub par condition. I would imagine it would be quite depressing and difficult to learn in a stuffy unventilated, outdated and vandalized classroom. Upon touring some of the PPS facilities, A writer for the Willamette Weekly commented they witnessed “schools that look like they belong in Detroit (sorry, Detroit) rather than the City of Roses”. This comment really struck me because I think Portland is such a beautiful and thriving city, how can this be going on here?

 A recent PARADE article “Rebuilding America’s Schools” highlighted how a bond could turn a school around in the right direction. Santa Ana high school in California was in a lower income area, and like most schools around the nation it needed a facelift badly. A 200 million dollar bond was approved to improve 56 schools. Santa Ana high school received forty million to remodel and since then vandalism has nearly stopped and attendance has increased. The article also mentions another bond measure success story coming out of Kentucky. The rebuilding of Richardson Elementary cut its energy costs to be about a quarter of an average school’s. The 2700 solar panels that cover the roof not only generate enough for the school, but also for the rest of the school district. To make it even better, the entire district consumes less energy than the panels produce and the district is able to sell back that extra energy to the grid. I was really inspired by this because it visibly shows how a renovation can contribute back to the community which supported it.

Portland Public Schools needs our support in order for anything to happen. Last years proposed bond to rebuild PPS was favored in early polls but it ended up being narrowly rejected by voters. Critics of the bond include homeowners on a fixed income as the bond would raise income taxes $1.10 per $1000 of assessed property value for the next eight years. I think that board members really tried to budget this years bond; it is nearly one dollar less per $1000 than the rejected bond from last year. If the bond passes then it will be the largest local government bond measure in Oregon history. The problems in our public school system is also fittingly the largest educational need in our state’s history as well so for me passing this bond measure makes complete sense. For better or worse Portland students must continue their education, so why would we not try to help?

Have your own input on the bond that you think PPS should hear? E-mail


Paying for Public Education? (by Guest Student Blogger Kelsey Robertson)

NOTE: Kelsey is a student in the Portland State University Capstone titled “Enhancing Youth Literacy.”  This summer, she supported Upward Bound staff and students in nutrition and literature courses.  She has already made a plan to continue her work with Upward Bound in the fall!  Her questions on families having to pay for public education are extremely relevant to local discussions on limited access to free day-long kindergarten programs and school budgets that are so tight that  teachers and families have to bring basic supplies to class that should be provided (paper for photocopying, for example).  Read Kelsey’s words here:

In elementary school, my school always asked families to pay for bits and pieces of our education throughout the school year. Between field trips, extra books, transportation, and school gear, we ended up paying a large amount. I was lucky enough to have parents who could handle the extra costs, but for families already struggling to get by this can be a huge source of stress. Schools argue that the funding isn’t coming from elsewhere, so families should contribute. We have a right to a free, public education. Should K-12 schools be allowed to charge students for some of these ‘extras’ to make up for budget deficits?

The ACLU says no, and has filed a lawsuit against the state of California. Parents are coming out and telling horror stories of amounts contributed, teachers who denounce children whose families are unable to pay, and students falling behind because of the inability to pay for textbooks. Educational inequity is rampant in California, and the expectation that families contribute financially is increasing the gap.

What are your thoughts? Have you experienced having to pay for K-12? What about the students you were working with in your capstone placement? What do you think will come of the ACLU lawsuit?


The Status Quo in Education: Limiting Student Potential & Using Empty Words? (by Guest Student Bloggers Jeffery Fockler & Camille Rushanaedy)

If you haven’t read Jonathan Kozol’s Shame of the Nation, let these reflections from the incredible mentors/tutors in UNST 421 convince you.  Here are their reflections after reading an excerpt, experiencing their field placements, and becoming incredibly knowledgeable about education in Portland and the U.S.  Both students question the status quo in education today and the way they feel that education structures are limiting student (and overall human) potential. The kind of thinking, discussing, and acting that happens in these courses is powerful stuff.  Grappling with these complex issues is not easy in any sense, but with increased awareness, spreading of information, and action, we will be able to make change.

From Guest Student Blogger Jeffery Fockler

I think Fortino (and Jonathon Kozol in giving Fortino the last word) is implying that the segregated state of the nation’s schools is the result of some implicit desire of the wealthy to protect the status quo by keeping the poor, poor.  For our economic system to function, some people must do menial, manual labor, while others can do more fulfilling jobs that require a quality education and, consequently, money.  By keeping poor people poor with poor education, they can continue to do the menial jobs so rich people don’t have to.

Although I think most Americans would be disturbed by the idea that this is intentionally maintained by the wealthy class, I can’t help but think it is implicitly promoted by our society.  It seems there is a trend for poor, minority schools to focus curriculum on technical programs where students are encouraged to pursue more “practical” careers like mechanics, construction, or sewing.  This trend is apparent in Portland Public Schools, and it seems it would only further contribute to segregation.  I wonder to what extent these programs are inspired by the implicit desire to maintain whatever stability is left in our economic system.  In my opinion, an economic system is a failure if we must limit the potential of any human in order to maintain the economy.

From Guest Student Blogger Camille Rushanaedy

Camille quoted Jonathan Kozol from shame of the nation as the context for her response:

“Linguistic sweeteners, semantic somersaults, and surrogate vocabularies are repeatedly employed.  Schools in which as few as 3 or 4 percent of students may be white or Southeast Asian or of Middle Easter origin, for instance — and where every other child in the building is black or Hispanic — are referred to as ‘diverse.'”

This quote stood out to me as a linguistics major, as it is highlighting the way in which language is couched to hide the plain realities we live in.  While it is plain to the students and educators in these schools (and to those of us reading about them) that these are minority schools that are receiving funding and support that reflects their status as minorities, those in power would rather label them as “diverse” and ignore the problems that those working and learning in the school face on a daily basis.  This is a very dangerous and problematic stance to take, for the children being directly affected as well as the society as a larger whole.  If we were to plainly label everything as it was, would the likelihood of changes being made increase?  What would it take for everyone to speak plainly about inequalities in our education system?

I absolutely believe that the general public is not well informed on education funding or even what needs to be funded.  Most middle class groups (not necessarily white) don’t even realize the amount of need in education funding because in their experiences schools are adequately funded and while there may be a shortage of school supplies or a large class size, they don’t have to deal with a dilapidated building or lack of school nurses or any of the other issues facing schools which serve populations in poverty.  Countless times, I have heard people harping on the need for more money towards education and yet any mention of increased taxes or reform and they suddenly become reluctant to give.

How to Fix Education? Four Perspectives from Recent Education News

Usually during the middle of the term, the students in my education-focused Capstone courses start to feel overwhelmed by all of the challenges to education that we discuss in class and see within our community partner sites.  I’ve realized how important it is to not only discuss the problems but to propose solutions — both large and small scale.  This prevents despair and encourages action.  Here are four different moments from this week’s education news that highlight the ways that people (from those in national organizations to those in a single school district or city) are working to fix education.  Read and let me know what you think!

  1. In the Huffington Post, author and education reformer Kevin Chavous writes “If You Want Our Economy Fixed, Fix Education.”  He details a recent report’s findings on FOUR (not one, but four) achievement gaps that U. S. students face: the international achievement gap, the racial achievement gap, the income achievement gap, and the system-based achievement gap.  His recommendations for how to fix education?  Give schools equitable and stable funding, employ and support strong teachers, and come together as a community to demand better education and to work toward it.
  2. In Marian Wright Edelman’s latest blog posts on education (she is the director of the Children’s Defense Fund and one of the most prominent advocates and activists for children’s rights in the U.S.), she talks about the privilege and importance of voting to support kids and education and looks at one of the big issues in education conversations right now — the inequity in discipline and the way schools push out students and then blame them for failing.  The short story: Support kids and education by keeping them in school rather than pushing them out and educating the whole child (emotional, intellectual, etc.).  And push for voter registration, voter education, and voter turnout in the fal
  3. In Portland youth-related news, the youth bus pass program has been saved (although it has also brought up a bunch of complicated issues about balancing the strained budgets of our schools, Metro, etc.).  This is good news for students who will still be able to take public transportation to and from school and school events for free.  The fix? Give students access to resources, and they will use them.  They will also feel like the community wants them to succeed.
  4. Also, in Portland Public School news, tonight, there is a conversation being held about enrollment balancing options for the Jefferson cluster.  If this is your neighborhood and your school district, please attend and add your voice.  The Jefferson area certainly needs stability and lots of support right now after the closing of Humboldt and Harriet Tubman in addition to years of inequity for students in the area.  Lots of hope for these schools as they go forward! The fix? Figure out how to stabilize enrollment so that Jefferson-area students can settle in and feel supported, heard, and pushed intellectually. It also seems like a discussion about the transfer policy and how to encourage attendance in neighborhood schools should also be on the table.

As always, being an informed community member is one of the first and most important steps to being a more engaged community member.  Keep up, ask questions, and keep me posted on other local issues that are important to you!

Why We’re Uneducated About Education (by Guest Blogger Tyler Kennedy)

I love my job because I’m constantly learning.  I learn how to be a better teacher, what I want to take place in the classroom, and what I want to take place in the world each time I teach.  I learn about new perspectives, innovative ideas, and questions that I should be asking.  I get to be inspired by committed, hopeful, energized people willing to sacrifice a little to better the place we live for all.

This week, a few students agreed that I could share some of their work.  My first guest blogger is Tyler Kennedy, a student who is passionate about sustainability and who has become very involved in our Enhancing Youth Literacy course discussions and hands-on work.  His words appear below in teal.

The general public is not educated in terms of funding of educational programs because it’s not a subject covered in our sensationalized media today….If I were in charge of educational funding, I would assuredly allocate more funds toward early age education and parental support and assistance programs during the first few years of childhood.  However, this is due to my belief that it is not an educational problem as it is more of a poverty issue, which has repercussions in education…Providing a social help network to poor or needy families can go a long way.  Building and repairing libraries and other community resources is a great start.  With so much wealth being traded daily in our nation, how can we let our brothers and sisters suffer without basic life necessities?

Conversations and thinking about poverty, our education system, and the media are the first step in creating change in our communities, and I’m proud to be a witness and participant in this kind of discussion.  

A Question for PDXEAN Readers:

So, what do you think, readers?  Why are we uneducated about education and what’s the best way to educate a public that often feels apathetic or defeated?