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Flushed With Victory, Charter-School Advocates Share Words of Wisdom

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Charter-school advocates rejoiced over legislative victories while they traded advice on everything from raising money to finding a school site during a recent national meeting here.

Emboldened by the passage of charter-school bills in eight states in the most recent legislative session, many of the 200 education officials, lawmakers, school board members, and teachers here touted the benefits of the schools, which operate free of most state regulations. (See Education Week, 5/10/95-->.)

The American Association of Educators in Private Practice, based in Watertown, Wis., organized the three-day conference last month. Though it included sessions on private management of public schools and contracting for other services, the charter-school discussions were the liveliest.

About 165 charter schools are up and running nationwide--and there are dozens more in the pipeline in states that are still reviewing applications, said Joe Nathan, the director of the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota.

Mr. Nathan released a study here by the center and the Education Commission of the States that found that charter supporters primarily seek educational freedom.

In the survey of about 100 educators and parents in charter public schools in seven states, full autonomy ranked first among their priorities--even higher than obtaining seed money to open the schools.

Two-thirds of the school officials said they had an integrated or interdisciplinary curriculum; about half said technology was a focus. While most of the schools serve a cross-section of students, many were designed for at-risk, learning-disabled, or gifted children, according to the survey.

Educators acknowledged obstacles such as finding enough money and a building--about 40 percent lease space--but said that "better teaching and learning for all kids" kept them going, the study says.

"People all over the U.S. are eager--and in some cases, desperate--to start these schools, even though it's hard work," Mr. Nathan said. "And they're willing to put their jobs on the line with the understanding that they will be allowed to do whatever they think is best."

Copies of the report are available for $5 each from the Center for School Change, Humphrey Institute, University of Minnesota, 301 19th Ave. South, Minneapolis, Minn. 55455; (612) 626-1834.

Though the boosters were enthusiastic about their prospects in the states, they also acknowledged that charter schools face a big hurdle: funding. It is not only a matter of getting the money, but of managing it, several state education officials said.

"There's a lack of awareness that a charter school is really a small, entrepreneurial business," said Linda Fuller, the Arizona education department's administrator for charter schools. The state passed its charter law this year and already has approved several schools sponsored by districts.

Often, the most successful schools have backers with business experience who devise detailed, long-range plans for spending, one participant noted during a session on funding.

Several states are trying to enlist support from the business community to help fledgling schools.

In Arizona, the education department is trying to match local businesses with charter schools, and officials there hope to enroll some teachers and parents in corporate training sessions, Ms. Fuller noted.

Applicants there must submit a three-year business plan. Education officials have asked business people to help them determine whether those plans are sound.

In addition, Ms. Fuller said, Arizona seeks to educate the real-estate industry about the charter law, since such businesses deal with zoning and planning--often key factors in opening a charter school.

The interest in the schools has overwhelmed Arizona officials, said Ms. Fuller, whose department has been swamped with applications for approval and funding.

The U.S. Education Department also has money available for charter schools.

Jonathan Schnur, the department's special assistant to the deputy secretary, said the federal government has a $6 million fund that will primarily help with start-up costs in states with charter laws.

But schools can also get creative, with money available in some cases under the federal Title I, Goals 2000, or school-to-work programs.

While word spreads about how the schools are faring, other states are considering charter legislation this summer or plan to in the next session.

But Louann A. Bierlein, an education-policy analyst in Baton Rouge, La., pointed out that "the opposition is becoming much more savvy" in many places.

While critics once sought to defeat charter legislation, now they often back weaker versions that may not add momentum to the movement, she said.

In a session about the provisions of some of the 19 existing charter laws, Ms. Bierlein noted that three new laws fell at the weak end of the spectrum.

She speculated that opponents lined up behind watered-down bills so they could later argue that charter schools were not working as a reform.

"Generally, the bills are also becoming much more complicated--I think that's going to weigh things down, ultimately," Ms. Bierlein added.

In Rhode Island, for example, charter schools must enroll the same percentage of special-education or limited-English-proficient students as the local district as a whole. And in Delaware, a charter school cannot enroll fewer than 200 students without special approval from the state.

Such restrictions make it hard to get charters off the ground, several participants said.

Ember Reichgott Junge, a Minnesota state senator who sponsored the state's charter-school legislation, said she tried to make the law broad enough to avoid those pitfalls.

For example, she said, the legislature used boilerplate language for why charters could be revoked, listing only such reasons as fraud.

"We deliberately left it that way," she said, "because we didn't want boards to be able to come in and do away with [the schools] as the political winds changed."

--Joanna Richardson

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