SALEM—Summary: Although the Hillsboro legislator fails to make gains with his controversial personal agenda, he is still respected by colleagues
Charles Starr stood at the back of the Senate chamber and told a visitor that a bill to make child immunizations optional would clear his Education Committee that day.
Hours later, after the bill was condemned by state health officials as dangerous to public health, the bill died for lack of support.
As have many of the other ideas that the Washington County Republican senator has championed this legislative session.
An avowed conservative whose ideas often put him proudly out of the mainstream, the Senate Education Committee chairman has fought losing battles to roll back child immunization requirements, post the Ten Commandments in schools and end bilingual education.
After four months of hearings, Starr’s committee recently was closed by the Senate leadership. Lobbyists and education officials said much of the committee’s time was taken up by Starr’s personal agenda, for which he could gather little support.
Starr cites his biggest success as bringing the Ten Commandments bill to the full Senate — even though lawyers had warned his committee that the bill was an unconstitutional endorsement of religion. The Senate killed it by a 16-14 vote.
David Conley, a University of Oregon education researcher, says Starr’s kind of personal agenda politics has emerged in recent years after the state took control of school funding from local districts.
“As a result, it’s a free-for-all,” Conley says. “Any legislator can feel quite justified in introducing any bill he wants on education. That wouldn’t have happened 15 or 20 years ago.”
For his part, Starr, who represents Hillsboro, admits he’s no consensus-builder.
“I’ve never been good reaching compromise,” he says. “It’s a failure of mine, I admit.”
Starr, 68, offered bills ending bilingual education and requiring schools to teach students an NRA gun safety course.
His conviction that phonics instruction is the key to helping at-risk kids master reading led to a bill requiring the state to pay for a phonics game in every preschool in the state. Starr also wanted Portland schools to try an all-phonics reading instruction experiment in several elementary schools.
And one of his bills would have made the centerpieces of Oregon’s decade-old school reform program, the certificates of initial and advanced mastery,
optional for districts.
Beyond education, he proposed creating a state income tax deduction for the cost of getting a concealed handgun permit, making late-term abortions a crime and requiring police to report crimes by ecoterrorists. None of those bills got a hearing.
Passion trumps practicality
Sen. Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day, his colleague on the Senate Education Committee, says Starr tends to be driven by the passion of his convictions than the hard-nose head-counting that maneuvers bills into laws.
“With Starr, it’s more about what’s right,” Ferrioli said. “He doesn’t look at the process the way that others might.”
Starr has been a beacon for conservative Christian causes since he came to the Legislature in 1993 as a member of the House. He fought gay marriages and gay rights in the workplace and sponsored a bill making divorce more difficult.
Last year, he mounted a bid to unseat first-term Democrat David Wu in the 1st Congressional District. Starr ran on his conservative views in a district dominated by suburban moderates. Wu soundly defeated Starr, 58 percent to 38 percent, after raising six times as much money as Starr.
Despite Starr’s often unpopular views, legislators and lobbyists say they find him personable and sincere.
“He is a gentleman to work with,” said John Marshall, lobbyist for the Oregon School Boards Association. “He is open and willing to listen.”
Sincerity never questioned
Sen. Avel Gordly, D-Portland, who in many ways is his ideological opposite,
says Starr operates out of sincere motives. She recalls him coming to Portland in February to meet with the Education Crisis Team, a group of mostly minority parents prodding Portland Public Schools to do more to help children struggling academically.
“He’s very passionate about seeing that all children know how to read,” she said. “He came away from that meeting even more committed.”
Starr has brought parents to his committee who seek a forum to vent against the system. He conducted a long hearing for parents of autistic children who want the state to do more to help their children. He took hours of testimony from citizens who argued that the state should not require parents to have their children vaccinated in order to attend school if they think the vaccinations are harmful.
A move to end bilingual ed
Starr’s committee often was the cradle of controversy. An example was his bill to eliminate bilingual education in Oregon schools.
Starr is convinced that teaching Latino children academic courses in Spanish relegated them to second-class English is the ticket to economic advancement. He sponsored Senate Bill 919, patterned after an Arizona initiative that eliminated bilingual education in favor of English immersion courses designed to teach English at a fast pace.
But when he held a hearing on his bill in April, Latinos rallied on the Capitol steps to protest. Inside the hearing room, education leaders called it unsound, and Latinos testified it was culturally insensitive.
The bill died.
During the Senate debate last week on the Ten Commandments bill, Starr read a speech that cited various courts and founding fathers’ reverence for the Ten Commandments. He made his oft-repeated argument that American values are off-track. Putting the Ten Commandments in the schools might help restore them, he said.
He lost, again. No matter.
“I am just thankful we had the opportunity,” says Starr.
You can reach Steven Carter at 503-221-8521 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.