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Varied Laws Raise a Question: What Is a Charter School?

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Denver

The increasing popularity of the concept of charter schools masks a diverse array of state legislation and unresolved issues, participants at a conference here have suggested.

Policymakers from states that have passed or are considering charter-schools legislation met this month to discuss the progress and pitfalls of their efforts.

Eight states--California, Colorado, Georgia, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, and Wisconsin--have adopted charter-schools laws giving educators and others broad leeway to design and operate publicly funded schools.

A survey by the National Conference of State Legislatures estimates that at least 14 more states will consider charter-schools bills this year, including Arizona, Illinois, Texas, and Washington State.

In general, the bills are designed to encourage the creation of autonomous, innovative schools that are held accountable for results, rather than for compliance with rules and regulations.

Beyond that, however, the bills differ markedly.

Some states limit their proposals to existing public schools that want to convert to charter status. Others envision the creation of totally new schools.

Some give local school boards the primary responsibility for approving and negotiating charters. Others, such as Massachusetts, bypass the local boards entirely.

A number of states--including California, Colorado, and Minnesota--cap the number of charter schools that can be approved, at least initially. But others, such as Georgia and Michigan, have no cap. Although a few states grant charter schools blanket waivers from existing state rules and regulations, Colorado requires waivers to be negotiated rule by rule.

In Minnesota, charter schools are legally autonomous. In California, though, the school board negotiates the charter's legal status and who hires and fires personnel.

'What Is a Charter School?'

In the future, "much of the fight will be over what is a charter school, not who embraces it,'' Barbara O'Brien, the executive director of the Colorado Children's Campaign, said at the conference.

One such dispute is already evident in Wisconsin, where lawmakers last year enacted a bill to create up to 10 charter schools. But Howard Fuller, the superintendent of the Milwaukee schools, argued that the measure was not a charter-schools bill at all, for one thing because charter-school employees would be employed by the school board and be subject to existing collective-bargaining agreements.

"Public schools are in danger of totally losing political and economic support,'' warned Mr. Fuller. "And the reason is because we will not open up the system.''

An analysis of charter-schools laws by the Morrison Institute for Public Policy in Arizona suggests that the concept has "been diluted, to some degree, to accommodate states' political needs.'' With the exception of Massachusetts', most of the laws adopted in 1993 grant only limited funding and legal authority automatically to charter schools.

"There really isn't that model, true law yet which has passed,'' argued Sen. Ember Reichgott of Minnesota, who sponsored the first charter-schools law passed in the nation. "There's that fear that charter schools is becoming a notion that is being applied to things other than charter schools.''

To help clarify the situation, attendees began working on a definition of what makes a charter school. According to their initial attempt, people at the school site must have the power to make critical decisions about such issues as budgets and personnel. They should be held accountable for results specified in a written contract.

Moreover, charter schools should be exempt from virtually all rules and regulations, except those that prohibit discrimination, the proposed definition suggests. More than one sponsor should be available to contract with a charter school, so that local school boards do not have sole authority to veto their existence. And the dollars should follow the child to the school, which is a school of choice.

"The essential idea is probably simple--that the state says it's O.K. for more than one organization to be offering public education in the community,'' said Ted Kolderie, a senior fellow with the Center for Policy Studies in Minnesota.

'High-Risk Enterprises'

Proposals for charter schools also differ greatly from state to state. In Colorado, for example, close to 20 charter schools will be in operation by next fall, most of which will be starting from scratch. In California, almost all of the proposals come from existing public schools--particularly elementary schools--that want to convert to charter status.

In Massachusetts, on the other hand, most of the 22 proposals being worked on are for totally new schools. And in Minnesota, six of the first eight proposals approved by the state are for schools that serve at-risk populations.

It is too soon to tell how innovative or effective the proposed charter schools will be, participants agreed. An even bigger question is whether the charter schools will be able to transform the larger system or will remain small, isolated experiments.

"These are very high-risk small enterprises with a propensity for failure,'' warned Eric Premack, a senior analyst with BW Associates, a policy-research firm that is working with a number of charter schools in California.

Most charters are struggling with start-up costs and the legal issues involved in setting up any new enterprise. Indeed, one of the most contentious issues at the conference was whether charter schools need additional start-up funds to get off the ground.

To help the fledgling enterprises, a number of states have tried to provide technical assistance, either within or outside the state bureaucracy.

"The public school system just gets so wrapped up in its past history, in its bureaucracy, in its ways of doing business ... that real creativity is sometimes difficult,'' said Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado, who helped convene the conference. "We're saying go off and try some things that we have not tried. Here is some freedom to do it.''

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