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Advocates Seek Revisions in Many Charter Laws

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Charter school advocates are pushing to rewrite recently minted laws in at least half of the 20 states that have embraced the increasingly popular movement.

Treating states' original charter school laws as rough drafts, some legislators are proposing what amount to technical fixes. Others are hoping to get what they didn't get the first time around: an expansive law that boosts the number of charter schools in the state.

In California, at least 10 bills have been introduced to revamp that state's 1992 law, including a proposal to raise or lift the law's limit of 100 charter schools.

In Louisiana, lawmakers this week will convene a special session that will include debate on a proposal by newly elected Republican Gov. Mike Foster to expand a law that is not even a year old.

And in Massachusetts, GOP Gov. William F. Weld is urging lawmakers to permit an unlimited number of charter schools rather than the 25 allowed under that state's 1993 law.

"If public schools can't stand up to competition, let's just get rid of public schools and replace them all with charter schools," Gov. Weld said at a recent visit to City on a Hill, a Boston charter school. (See related story, page 6.)

Reviving Dead Laws

In concept, charter schools--typically created and run by parents, community groups, or others outside the district structure--receive public funding but operate free of most state and local regulation. (See Education Week, Nov. 29, 1995.)

But charter proponents in some states pushing for law rewrites argue that their states have passed weak laws that limit the number of schools that can open or make opening schools nearly impossible. In Kansas and Georgia, where only a handful of such schools have opened, efforts have failed this year to rewrite and revive what charter proponents say are dead or weak laws.

"We have a very ineffective law as it exists," said Griff Doyle, the executive director of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank. "There was some discussion about changing it, but there are a lot of people here who pay lip service to wanting a good charter school law."

In California, charter advocates hoping to make what is widely considered a strong law even stronger are hoping to get a boost from a new report touting the success of the state's charter schools.

The report, issued this month by the Little Hoover Commission, a state watchdog agency, recommends allowing an unlimited number of charter schools to open, a move endorsed by Gov. Pete Wilson.

"We must provide others with this same opportunity--a true choice to restore excellence and accountability in the state," the Republican governor said.

In California, 89 charter schools are open, and 11 additional applications have been approved. The state board of education also recently granted waivers to allow four more schools to open, exceeding the cap in the law. There are about 7,000 public K-12 schools in the state. The California Assembly, the legislature's lower house, already has approved a bill raising the 100-school cap to 300.

"If what you want is innovation in how you deliver education, 100 schools is not a meaningful experiment," said Louis Caldera, a Democrat and the chief sponsor of the Assembly bill.

In Louisiana, a new lineup of political players is pushing for a rewrite of that state's 1995 law. Gov. Foster, who was elected last November, is hoping to give the state school board the authority to approve up to 50 charter schools. There are roughly 1,400 K-12 public schools in the state. Currently, only eight of the state's 66 local boards can approve charters.

Gov. Foster has named Louann A. Bierlein, a nationally known charter school expert, as his education adviser.

And Cecil Picard, the author of the charter school legislation and the chairman of the Senate education committee, is a leading candidate to be named the state's new schools chief by the state board.

'Kind of Stuck'

Rewrite efforts in states with weak laws likely will run aground on the same opposition that originally resulted in watered-down legislation, said Ted Kolderie, a charter school advocate and an education analyst with the Center for Policy Studies in Minneapolis.

"The states with strong laws have a better chance at doing a rewrite than weak-law states," Mr. Kolderie said. "Once you get a weak law, you're kind of stuck."

In California, while the Republican-controlled Assembly has warmly received some of the charter school legislation, the Senate education committee is stacked with Democrats opposed to revisiting the law.

And in Louisiana, officials of the state school boards' association plan to oppose Gov. Foster's proposal, saying lawmakers agreed just last year that only locally elected officials should approve charter schools.

"The state board of education in Baton Rouge doesn't know what the people of northeast Louisiana want," said Winfred Sibille, a lobbyist for the association.

Critics of Gov. Weld's proposal in Massachusetts argue that the 25-school cap there is needed because the charter schools have not yet proved whether they will boost student performance.

"These are untried experiments," said Stephen K. Wollmer, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Teachers Association. "If you are a manufacturer and you're producing a new widget, you wouldn't mass-produce it until you have field-tested it."

Meanwhile, in states without charter laws, proposals have cleared at least one chamber of the legislature in Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar, a Republican, is expected to sign charter school legislation soon. In Idaho, however, lawmakers ended their session earlier this month unable to resolve the differences between separate bills that cleared the House and Senate.

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