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12 States Join Move To Pass Charter Laws

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In Massachusetts, as lawmakers and policy analysts debate revisions to a new charter-school law, parents are voting with their pens. Applications have far outpaced the available slots at the 17 charter schools scheduled to open in the fall.

At the City on a Hill charter school in Boston, which will aim to instill its students with a spirit of public service, 140 applicants entered a lottery for the school's first 60 openings. All those prospective students had to attend a two-hour model town meeting just to qualify for the lottery.

Students and parents are not alone in their interest. Nearly 400 teachers have applied for the school's three teaching positions.

"It's been exciting" starting the school, said Sarah Kass, a former public school teacher who co-founded City on a Hill. "There is a desperate need for good public schools in the city of Boston."

The idea of giving individuals or groups the authority and money to run public schools is taking hold across the nation.

Charter schools are now legal in 12 states. And at least 20 more states are considering charter-school legislation this year.

More Than 200 Awarded

Such support appears to be moving charter schools from the fad stage into a prominent spot on the education-reform agenda.

More than 200 charters have been granted nationwide by local school boards, state boards of education, and other entities. Charters are awarded to independent groups, including teachers, parents, and foundations, enabling them to receive public money to create schools that are free of most regulations. A district typically loses a portion of its state per-pupil funding when one of its students enrolls in a charter school.

Both existing and proposed charter schools are diverse in size, theme, and socioeconomic makeup.

While there have been some problems--at least one charter has been revoked, and some charter schools' practices have led to lawsuits and community battles--supporters say the laws are working the way they were intended: to give parents an alternative to the public school system and to prod that system to shape up.

"Charter schools are generating tremendous energy," said Ted Kolderie, a senior associate at the University of Minnesota's center for policy studies.

In addition to increased legislative activity, existing and soon-to-open charter schools appear to be a hit with parents. In Massachusetts, parents have flooded charter-school organizers with more than 1,300 applications for the roughly 882 slots available in the fall, and they are still coming in.

"Parents want this choice," said Ann Marie Toda, a spokeswoman for the executive office of education in Massachusetts, which reviews charter applications.

Some Voice Skepticism

Opponents of charter schools have shifted their tactics from seeking to defeat new legislation to trying to water down the measures they believe have the support to pass, Mr. Kolderie said.

"It's a totally different discussion this year," he said. "It means nothing to say you are for a charter law. Everything depends on how you define it. The whole legislative struggle is over the provisions."

Some people remain firmly opposed to charter schools or are skeptical about their value in helping reform education.

"I see charter schools as a way of setting up a segregated school system again," said State Sen. Betty S. Holzendorf of Florida, who represents an inner-city Jacksonville district. "When the charter school fails, the local school board that has lost money will have to go in and salvage those children."

Both chambers of Florida's legislature have passed charter legislation this year, although differences in the bills must be reconciled.

Meanwhile, in a report released earlier this year, a major business organization grouped charter schools with such initiatives as school choice and education vouchers as forms of "starting anew."

The New York City-based Conference Board, whose membership includes more than 2,000 companies nationwide, suggested in the report that support for such measures by business leaders meant they were accepting the premise that the current education system is "irretrievably broken and cannot possibly be repaired by those working within it."

But many charter-school advocates take a different view.

"The ultimate purpose of these is not to create schools," Mr. Kolderie said. "It's about creating leverage and pressure on the mainline system to be responsive to people who want to improve it."

Former U.S. Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell said in a recent commentary that the idea of charter schools "has emerged as possibly the most promising innovation" in school reform. (See Education Week, 3/15/95.)

Mr. Kolderie noted that the charter-school movement is not really centrally planned or managed. "There's no real budget for it, and charter schools have spent hardly anything" when compared with such initiatives as the New American Schools Development Corporation, he said.

Getting Organized

Nevertheless, the charter movement is becoming more organized.

The National Association for Charter Schools attracted nearly 200 people to Milwaukee for its second annual conference last month, including state officials, academics, and school operators, said Greg Morris, the founder of the association.

"There is a certain amount of common concern," he said. "The national association would like to see some mainstream schools started that are more susceptible to replication."

Charter proponents have even set up a home in cyberspace. The Charter School Forum on the America Online computer service has hundreds of participants, said Frank Dooling of Tacoma, Wash., who established it last year. The forum includes a message board and software libraries featuring the text of state laws and sample charter documents.

To reach the forum, subscribers of America Online can type the keyword "charter." Others can send e-mail to Mr. Dooling at afcfrank@aol.com.

Strong and Weak Laws

Analysts are paying close attention to legislative efforts this year.

Charter-school advocates divide existing state charter laws into two categories: strong and weak. (See related story .)

"Strong" laws typically allow a high or unlimited number of new charter schools to be created. They waive most state and local regulations, and they give approval authority to some entity other than, or in addition to, local school boards. Advocates consider six states to have strong laws.

"Weak" laws are those that allow only existing public schools to be chartered, allow only the local school board to grant approval, or impose rules such as making teachers part of the local school system.

(See education-policy analyst who recently left Arizona State University in Tempe to work at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, cites Wyoming's new charter law as an example of a weak approach.

The law allows individuals to circulate petitions to create charter schools in existing schools, but it requires the signatures of 50 percent of the teachers within a school targeted for charter status. The law contains no effective waivers from state rules for charter schools nor any appeals process if the school board rejects an application. "With weak laws," Ms. Bierlein said, "groups that are opposed the charter law can say, ~'See, I told you so.'"

Unions' Concerns

So charter advocates are wary when teachers' unions say they no longer oppose the concept of charter schools. The National Education Association has stressed that position recently, including at the National Association for Charter Schools conference. And the American Federation of Teachers says it supports teacher-led charter schools but not "absolute deregulation" of schools, said Jamie Horwitz, an A.F.T. spokesman. He said the charter concept is being used by some organizers as a vehicle for their own interests, including religious beliefs.

"Initially, those opposed to charters were trying to kill bills," Ms. Bierlein said about state teachers' unions and other groups. "This year, they are now engaging in the dialogue and focused on passing weaker versions."

Andrea DiLorenzo, a policy analyst with the N.E.A.'s center for the preservation of public education, said the union remains concerned about the rights of teachers.

"What happens with employee and student rights that have been built up over the years?," she asked. "We see this as one possible tool for school reform, but we certainly don't see it as a panacea."

Ms. Bierlein argued that inner-city educators are proposing charter schools focused on helping children at risk of failure.

In California, former Sen. Gary Hart, who sponsored the charter bill there, said he was happy to see schools in disadvantaged areas convert to charter status. California's law, enacted in 1992, allows up to 100 charters, and about 80 have been granted. Bills under consideration in the legislature would remove the cap.

"To my delight, we have seen a healthy number of charter schools in the most disadvantaged areas," Mr. Hart said. "There is more parental involvement, and a heavy focus on ways to save money. I've been impressed by their entrepreneurial spirit."

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