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Calif. Is Second State To Allow Charter Schools

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California last week became the second state in the nation to authorize teachers and others to create independently operated public schools under a contract or "charter'' with a school district.

Gov. Pete Wilson signed the Charter Schools Act, which passed despite strong opposition from the state's teachers' unions.

The California measure could lead to a far more extensive test of the charter-school concept than that provided by the first such law, which was passed by Minnesota last year. While the Minnesota law limits the number of charter schools to eight statewide, the California bill allows creation of up to 100 such schools.

The new law also includes a provision allowing a district to convert all of its schools to charter status.

The law "represents a major departure from 'business as usual' in our schools,'' said Sen. Gary Hart, the bill's sponsor and chairman of the Senate education committee.

Lawmakers had introduced the measure this year in part to head off support for a private school voucher initiative that will go before voters in 1994. That proposal would enable parents to send their children to the public, private, or parochial school of their choice at taxpayers' expense.

In contrast, charter schools would open up options for parents and teachers within the public school system.

Under the act, charter schools would be exempt from most state regulations for traditional public schools. In exchange, they would have to specify their educational programs, the outcomes they want students to meet, and how progress toward those goals will be measured.

Backers say the idea will encourage the use of different and innovative teaching methods and improve student learning. But opponents of the measure charge that it fails to provide adequate protections for employees and students.

'Very Helpful'

Each charter school would be a school of choice, with per-pupil funding--currently about $4,800--following the student. Charter schools would be eligible to receive compensatory and special-education funds.

"I think it's going to be very helpful,'' said Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig. "Here's a school that basically wants to hold itself accountable, so in return they can call their own shots.''

Since Minnesota adopted its legislation last year, interest in charter schools has mushroomed. Similar bills have been proposed or are being considered in Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee.

But they have met with stiff opposition from some education groups, which fear that charter schools could divert money from existing programs and result in a loss of control for school boards and teachers' unions.

"There is no proof that opening charter schools provides any benefits to students that are not already provided in their local school districts,'' Del Weber, the president of the California Teachers Association, said in a statement last week.

The C.T.A. and the California Federation of Teachers had been negotiating with Rep. Delaine Eastin, the chairwoman of the House education committee, on a more restrictive charter-schools proposal.

Unlike the Hart bill, Ms. Eastin's proposal would have required all charter-school teachers to be licensed by the state, and teachers would have remained part of the district's collective-bargaining unit. Mr. Hart's bill leaves such decisions up to individual schools.

Both versions wound up on the Governor's desk after a compromise between Ms. Eastin and Mr. Hart fell through in a conference committee. The Governor vetoed Ms. Eastin's measure, arguing that it "would not allow a fair test of this experimental approach.''

Ms. Eastin, a Democrat, charged that the Republican Governor's decision was motivated in part by his desire to "punish'' her for their bitter public feuding over school finance.

"I think it's important that we give this its best shot now,'' she said. "But I really will be surprised if even 100 schools try it,'' given the labor-management problems that it raises.

Discrimination Barred

Under the new law, anyone can circulate a petition to start a charter school. The petition must be signed by at least 10 percent of the teachers in a district, or 50 percent of the teachers within a single school, to be submitted to the school board for review.

If the board approves the charter, after a public hearing, the school would be allowed to operate for five years, with its approval renewed in five-year increments.

All charter schools would have to honor certain basic tenets of public education. They could not charge for their services and would have to operate in a nonsectarian and nondiscriminatory manner.

While charter schools would be open to students regardless of residence, existing public schools that shifted to charter status would have to give preference to pupils who resided in their former attendance area.

Unlike Minnesota's program, the California law prohibits the conversion of a private school to charter status. But it allows private individuals or organizations to provide funding and support to establish or operate a charter school.

The law also permits charter schools to set admissions requirements, a provision opposed by some public school educators.

However, the racial and ethnic composition of a charter school would have to reflect the student population of the district in which the petition is submitted. That provision, combined with the law's nondiscrimination requirements, will help prevent the creation of "elite academies,'' argued Susan Burr, a consultant to the Senate education panel.

Appeals Permitted

The California law also contains an appeals process for petitions that are rejected by local school boards--an option that is lacking in Minnesota. The appeals process would enable a county board of education to grant a charter if a local school board twice rejected it.

Ernie Tavella, a senior legislative advocate for the California School Boards Association, said it would have been preferable for local school boards to retain "final authority.'' But, he added, "We're able to support the current process.''

The law also would enable a district to convert all of its schools to charter status. A district could do so if: 50 percent of the teachers in the district signed a petition; the petition specified alternative arrangements for pupils in the district who did not wish to attend charter schools; and both the state board of education and superintendent of public instruction approved.

Kevin Teasley, the campaign manager of the voucher initiative, last week described the legislation as a "very good, positive step.'' But he argued that competition from the private sector still is needed.

Observers said it is hard to predict how many charter schools will be proposed, or how willing school boards will be to approve them.

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