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Charter Ruling Sends Schools In Michigan Reeling

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Grand Rapids, Mich.

At the New Branches School here, staff members and parents are struggling to keep alive their pioneering effort to create a new kind of public school in the face of a court ruling striking down Michigan's charter-school law.

Denied thousands of dollars in state money it would have received under the law, the school has laid off clerical and janitorial workers and sought donations to keep paying its teachers. Parents are pitching in to clean restrooms and answer phones.

Legal Battle Seems 'Remote'

"Our short-term goal is to keep our doors open," said David Frederick, the founder and administrator of New Branches, a 72-student elementary school focused on group learning and critical thinking.

"The legal situation seems rather remote to us right now," he said.

The Nov. 1 ruling by Ingham County Circuit Judge William E. Collette, which struck down Michigan's charter-schools law, has thrown a handful of such autonomous public schools into a state of anxious suspense.

Eleven schools--10 of which opened for the first time this fall--had been counting on funding from the state. (Of those, two had already been disqualified by the state superintendent of education, including the controversial Noah Webster Academy for home-schooling families.)

Dozens of other prospective charter-school organizers in Michigan are waiting in the wings, having applied to school districts or state universities for charters. Advocates hope for a successful appeal or a new law that might pass muster under the state constitution.

"The planning process is proceeding despite the uncertainty over the law," said Barbara Barrett, the executive director of the Michigan Center for Charter Schools, a private organization in Lansing. "What we are witnessing is a historic change in Michigan's approach to education. People really believe charter schools are a viable option."

The results from this month's elections also should boost a new charter law, Ms. Barrett said. Republican Gov. John Engler, a leading backer of the current law, was re-elected, and the g.o.p. took control of the legislature.

Opponents of charter schools, however, are seeking to derail the movement, or at least make the innovative schools more accountable to the education system. They scored their first significant victory when Judge Collette ruled that the current law, in setting up such schools, does not meet the state constitution's definition of public schools and usurps the state board of education's authority over schools. (See Education Week, 11/09/94.)

Barbara Roberts Mason, a member of the state board and one of the plaintiffs challenging the charter law, said she is not opposed to the concept.

"The problem with this legislation is that it allowed almost anybody to become a chartering authority," she said. "It did not allow the state board to become a chartering authority or to have any oversight over the schools."

Ms. Roberts is also a staff member of the Michigan Education Association, which backed the legal challenge to the charter law.

'Major Panic'

While lawyers and politicians debate the future of charter schools in the state, educators who took out loans or gave up other jobs to start or teach in such schools are hurting financially.

Teachers at the West Michigan Academy of Environmental Science, a charter school just outside Grand Rapids, have yet to see their first paycheck.

"It has been very stressful," said Virginia Tilly, a 6th-grade teacher. "How long can we go on without getting paid? I guess at this point I would say as long as necessary."

David Lehman, the founder of the environmentally focused school for 125 elementary and middle-grades students, said that "a degree of panic has set in."

He took out a $70,000 second mortgage on his home to open the school, hoping that state funding would begin in time for him to service the loan. He was recently served with an eviction notice for failure to make the payments. But he remains optimistic.

"Something good is going to happen," he said. "We didn't come this far to be shot down this way."

Families have flocked to the charter schools. West Michigan Academy, which features frequent outdoor activities and has units such as animal husbandry, has 115 students on a waiting list.

Role of Universities

One unusual facet of Michigan's charter law is that public universities, in addition to school districts, are empowered to grant charters.

The state's first charter school, the University Public School, was chartered by Wayne State University before the current law went into effect. More than 5,000 students applied for 330 seats, creating momentum for a statewide effort.

Like the other charter schools, it is now without state funding. It is relying on support from Wayne State.

"No one gives up power easily," said Tom Watkins, the head of a new charter-school think tank at Wayne State. "The educrats who want to continue to control a monopoly over public education are going to fight any changes."

Another public university has taken a lead role in encouraging charter applicants throughout the state. Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant granted charters to three of the schools operating this year. The institution has received 18 more applications for next year and has appointed a staff member to screen applicants.

"A lot of other [universities] took a very skeptical viewpoint," said Jerold C. Misner, the head of c.m.u.'s charter-schools office. "We saw it as a public service. Clearly this is market-driven reform."

Opponents have pointed out that Mr. Engler appoints the university's board of governors.

At New Branches, which was one of the schools chartered by Central Michigan, Mr. Frederick has begun appealing for major donations to keep the school open.

"We have not missed a payroll, but we are behind on our other obligations," he said.

Before the charter law, the school existed as a private institution. Critics say Michigan's law allows private academies to "convert" to public school status and receive more state funding than they would through tuition.

Mr. Frederick admitted that financial stability was one reason he sought charter status. The school's tuition last year was $2,250. If state funding had been approved, the school would have received $5,294 per pupil.

But he also argued that charter status has made the school more diverse economically and racially and provided more families with the opportunity to experience its group-learning philosophy.

Nora Coster, the mother of two children at the school, volunteered to clean restrooms recently to help the school stay open.

"It's heartbreaking," she said of Judge Collette's decision against the charter law. "What are we going to do if we cannot come here?"

Pushing the Envelope?

The most hotly debated charter school in Michigan is about a 40-minute drive from Grand Rapids. Noah Webster Academy in rural Ionia has gotten the lion's share of attention nationwide because of its novel approach and what critics view as its hidden agenda to use public money to promote religious instruction.

Noah Webster is a school for families who educate their children at home. It is an arrangement that most observers here say was not contemplated by legislators who created the law.

The academy received its charter from a small, rural school district, which in turn was to get a small percentage of the school's state funding in administrative fees. Noah Webster planned to use the several million dollars it expected from the state to build a computer network among its home-schooling families to transmit lessons and receive homework.

"When you say you want innovation and new ideas, expect them," said David A. Kallman, the founder of Noah Webster and a Lansing lawyer with years of experience fighting legal battles on behalf of home-schooling families.

Much attention has focused on the fact that many of the academy's more than 1,700 families are Christian home educators. Critics contend that they are signing up for the charter school as a way to get public money for religious curriculum materials.

In an interview at the rural log cabin that serves as Noah Webster's telephone and would-be computer nerve center, Mr. Kallman defended the concept.

"Are we pushing the envelope?" he asked. "I would say no. We're using technology. They [traditional public educators] are using the 19th-century model of education."

While many church-state concerns have been raised, the school has been sidetracked on other grounds. Robert E. Schiller, the state superintendent of public instruction, last month denied public funds for the school, saying it provided support services for home schoolers, not public instruction as contemplated under the law.

But that action may have become moot when Judge Collette later threw out the entire charter law. For the time being, Noah Webster is in the same boat as the other existing charter schools. And that means no funding.

Observers here say any new charter law may carefully foreclose the Noah Webster concept. But Mr. Kallman plans to keep fighting for it.

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