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Colo. Proposal Would Give Extra CashTo Good Schools That Mentor Bad Ones

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A Colorado lawmaker wants to take the charter school concept in a new direction and pay good schools to mentor bad ones.

Rep. Paul D. Schauer, a Republican, is working on a bill that would give more freedom and extra cash to schools that help other schools boost student achievement, improve teacher training, and increase parental and public commitment to schools.

Schools with sound fiscal practices and high academic achievement would win an "earned charter," granting them regulatory flexibility from the state and district. They could then pursue extra money by mentoring troubled schools.

The idea is a spinoff from Colorado's 1993 charter school law, according to Mr. Schauer. Under that law, a school can sign a contract with its local school board agreeing to meet certain student-performance marks in exchange for freedom from many state and local rules.

Under Rep. Schauer's plan, such autonomy would be used as an incentive to entice schools to improve and would be granted only after the school reached high standards.

"If you don't have something in the process to encourage improvement, why bother?" Mr. Schauer argued.

A Novel Idea

Details of the legislation, including the amount of money that would go to schools working in partnerships with others, are still being worked on.

But the idea is new both to charter school proponents and to educators who are working on strategies to replicate the work of top schools, analysts said.

In the charter school concept, "schools are put on contract to improve the learning of children within their own doors," said Louann A. Bierlein, the director of the Louisiana Education Policy Center at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. "Here, schools would be put on contract to improve learning of children outside their own building."

Proving that charter schools can spark change throughout a school system is one of the biggest challenges for the movement, Ms. Bierlein said. And efforts at duplicating successful schools have met with mixed results.

"We've found that it's hard to take model programs and replicate them," Ms. Bierlein said. Despite high-profile projects such as the New American Schools Development Corporation, a privately financed, nonprofit effort to foster prototypical new schools, she said, "we have not had much success anywhere."

The Colorado proposal would encourage teachers and principals to build reform together rather than relying on outside help, said Carl Glickman, the chairman of the League of Professional Schools, a school-reform network at the University of Georgia in Athens. But the two partnering schools should be similar in their makeup.

"You probably don't want a large urban school mentoring a rural school of 200 kids," Mr. Glickman said.

Facing Hurdles

As Rep. Schauer builds on the skeleton of his idea, he will also have to wrestle with significant political obstacles to his plan.

Beyond working on the bill with the Education Commission of the States, the Denver-based clearinghouse for state education policy, he still must consult with Colorado's leading education groups, key players in the legislative process.

A spokeswoman for the Colorado Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union, said last week that the group had not heard of the plan yet and declined comment.

Mr. Schauer's plan also will have to compete for attention with a major rewrite of the state's charter law that is expected next session.

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