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Board Backs Charter for Home-Schooling Academy in Mich.

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A Michigan school board has approved a proposal for a publicly funded charter school for home-schooling students throughout the state.

Under the charter approved last month by the school board of Berlin and Orange townships, the Noah Webster Academy in Ionia County will house a handful of administrators and a dozen or so teachers who will communicate with parents and students by computer.

The academy will receive roughly $5,500 per pupil in state aid, which organizers said will go in part for the purchase of computer software, modems, printers, and at least one computer for every home-schooling family.

The academy's back-to-basics curriculum will feature morals instruction, said David A. Kallman, a Lansing lawyer who is the key figure in the charter group.

"We keep referring to this as Bill Bennett-type education,'' said Mr. Kallman, referring to the former U.S. Secretary of Education and author of The Book of Virtues, a book of moral lessons for children.

Approval of the proposal sets the stage for another in a series of court battles between Michigan education officials and home-school supporters. It also could lead to renewed attacks on the charter-schools law itself, which Gov. John Engler proposed and steered to passage last year.

'Questionable in Its Design'

Response to the charter's approval has been mixed. The Detroit News hailed the charter group's promised curriculum as a "refreshing break from public education's trendy moral relativism.''

But officials of the Michigan Education Association, which opposed the charter-schools law, criticized the academy as the inevitable outcome of a flawed law.

"One of our primary objections has been borne out in the grant of this first charter that is questionable in its design,'' said Kim Brennen Root, a spokeswoman for the M.E.A. "A certain type of morality and values will be sanctioned with tax dollars.''

The teachers' union is exploring legal action, Ms. Brennen Root said, but has not filed suit.

Michigan education officials and home-school supporters have frequently sparred in court in the past. Observers expect that, like past court cases, any legal challenge to the charter will center on the state's teacher-certification law, which requires that all teachers in all schools be certified.

Lawyers for Mr. Engler's staff have read the academy's charter and believe it satisfies the law, said Daniel Schooley, the chief deputy director of the Governor's office for charter schools.

"The key is the site,'' he said. "And the site in this case is the Noah Webster Academy, where certified teachers will be on hand.''

'We Will Be Attacked'

Some predicted opposition to the academy will lead to a rewrite of the charter-schools law itself.

"There's just no need to spend $5,500 per pupil in that situation, and I think legislators will quickly see that,'' said Patricia Lines, a home-school researcher with the U.S. Education Department.

"I don't think there's any question that we will be attacked,'' said Mr. Kallman. "This cuts at the heart of public education as it's run today.''

Mr. Kallman has frequently represented home-school families in legal disputes with the state. Most recently, he won a case before the state supreme court, which ruled that parents with religious objections to public school instruction were exempt from the teacher-certification law.

Mr. Kallman said that while he initially anticipated enrolling 200 to 300 students in the academy next fall, the charter's announcement has led to a flood of inquiries.

"We're easily going to be over 500 students,'' he said, "and it could be a lot more.''

More than 1,100 students complied this year with a law that requires students taught at home to register with the state. But Mr. Kallman said many parents operate in violation of the law, estimating that there are 50,000 home-school students in the state.

Other State Programs

Michigan would not be the first state to support home-school students with public funds. California has several "independent study'' programs, under which districts receive state per-pupil aid to enroll students, some of whom live in other parts of the state.

Alaska runs a 55-year-old correspondence program for K-12 students, which boasts among its graduates the Olympic-gold-medal skier Tommy Moe. Course materials are shipped to students, and teachers at the school's headquarters in Juneau check their progress and help with assignments.

Originally designed for students in remote areas, the program now serves many parents who choose to educate their children at home for other reasons.

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