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Colorado Appeals Highlight Key Step In Charter Process

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When the Colorado legislature last year passed a law authorizing charter schools, two veteran middle school teachers from Denver, Cordia Booth and Noblet Danks, began dreaming about founding a school.

They envisioned an alternative middle school that would feature a rigorous back-to-basics curriculum, uniforms for students, and mandatory bilingual education. The school would be named after the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

Colorado's charter law is designed to encourage just such experimentation. But the teachers soon ran head on into the Denver school board.

Earlier this year, the board rejected the teachers' charter application, citing costs, potential transportation problems, and the fact that the sponsors had not secured a school site.

"The message they are sending is that they are not going to abide by the charter-school act,'' Ms. Booth said of the Denver board.

The board's stand has become a test case of a central issue as Colorado and other states implement charter-schools laws: Who has the ultimate authority to decide whether to let groups of parents and teachers use public money to start autonomous schools?

States with charter-schools laws have set up appeals processes through which charter applicants can try to bypass reluctant local school boards. In Colorado, it is the state board of education that must choose between educators skeptical of untested proposals and charter proponents frustrated by bureaucratic roadblocks.

In April, the state board ordered Denver to reconsider its denial of the charter application. After some fruitless negotiations, the local board last month again rejected the group.

Ms. Booth said her group will appeal a second time to the state board, which is authorized under the new law to order the Denver board to approve the application.

Covering All Bases

The appeals process in Colorado is highlighting some of the realities that come with putting a charter-school law into effect.

Applicants for charter schools, which operate free from most outside regulation, say school boards have been unwilling to approve applications because they fear losing both control and money.

"It is very easy for school districts to come up with reasons for denying any charter they want,'' said William Bethke, a Denver resident who helped a group that unsuccessfully sought to establish a charter school for deaf students and children of deaf parents. "It is very difficult for a group of parents to come up with an application that covers every possible problem.''

But administrators say some proposals are simply not ready for approval or could be implemented within the existing school system.

"The quality of the proposals was an issue in many cases,'' said Sharon Bailey, the vice president of the Denver board. The board objected to the Thurgood Marshall proposal primarily because it is seeking an unusually high amount of per-pupil funding, she said.

Charter schools are "a voucher in disguise,'' she added.

'Very Traditional Schools'

So far, 16 charter groups have filed appeals with the state board. A half-dozen of those have been rejected on procedural grounds, while 10 have received full hearings. So far, the state board has upheld local school boards' decisions eight times and has twice sided with charter-school applicants.

Sybil S. Downing, the chairwoman of the state board, said she has not been impressed by the innovative quality of the applications that have come before her.

"We have heard no innovative ideas,'' she said. "What has been brought before us in almost every case has been very traditional schools.''

Besides backing the Thurgood Marshall group, the board also ordered the Jefferson County school board to reconsider a proposed charter called the Jefferson Academy, which would emphasize the "core knowledge'' concept developed by the education theorist E.D. Hirsch Jr. The Jefferson board backed the charter the second time around.

So far, nine Colorado districts have approved 15 charter applications under the law, which authorizes as many as 50 charters by 1997.

School administrators say that they are not out to undermine the law, but that charter groups underestimate the complexity of starting a school.

"People have the feeling that schools just appear without any administrative planning,'' said Wayne Carle, the assistant superintendent for planning services in Jefferson County, the state's largest district. "If we were creating a new school, there would be a year to two years of planning.''

Phone-Book-Sized Briefs

Rejected applicants say the appeals process has brought frustrations on top of those they have experienced at the district level.

Several applicants noted that once the grassroots groups filed appeals with the state board, districts enlisted lawyers to draft arguments against the charters.

"I got this big thing in the mail the size of a phone book,'' said Barbara Griffith, who helped the Options for Youth group in Jefferson County try to win its appeal for a charter school for former dropouts.

"It was the legal brief of the district,'' she said. "We were average citizens going against these big attorneys. That shows a lot about their attitude toward charters.''

Susan Krumdieck, a Jefferson County parent who proposed the core-knowledge-based Green Mountain charter school, said that during her group's appeal, a state board member "told us that, as parents, we were kind of naÃive to try to start a school.''

"We were terribly offended,'' she added. "We are the consumer here.''

Hearing the charter appeals "is like sitting in divorce court,'' observed Ed Lyell, a member of the state board. "You are listening to two groups who have irreconcilable differences.''

Mr. Lyell said the next major test for the law is when the Thurgood Marshall group's appeal returns to the state board.

"Do we tell Denver you are going to run it anyway, or do we not push it?'' he asked.

"It is not clear yet whether [the charter-school law is] going to permit significant alternatives,'' he added. "It seems like the roadblocks are very big.''

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