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In '96 Sessions, Charter Laws Keep Spreading

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The charter school movement picked up six states and the District of Columbia during legislative sessions this year, and the momentum is likely to continue when lawmakers return to state capitals next month.

Despite urgent last-minute negotiations, a charter school bill died last week in the waning hours of the Pennsylvania legislature.

Nationwide, however, lawmakers showed increasing willingness to waive even more regulations for charter schools, raise the number of charters allowed, and loosen the appeals process to make it easier to get the new schools started.

"The anemic bills you saw a few years ago have stopped," said Alex Medler, a policy analyst with the Education Commission of the States in Denver. "Supporters of charter schools are not willing to pass weak measures."

Half of all states now allow charter schools, publicly funded schools that receive statutory freedom from most education regulations in order to try new teaching and curriculum strategies. Charters may be awarded to teachers, parents, and private organizations, among others.

There are nearly 500 charter schools in operation nationwide, according to the ECS.

Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, North Carolina, and South Carolina became the latest states to pass charter laws, approving the new schools during their 1996 legislative sessions.

Popular Movement

Observers point to the North Carolina measure as an example of a strong new charter bill. It allows 100 charter schools--the same number called for in much-larger California--and allows broad latitude in curriculum development.

North Carolina also allows an applicant to seek a charter from three different agencies. Some states give sole authorizing power to local school boards and greatly limit the appeals process for proposals that get turned down.

So far, 60 applications have been submitted to the North Carolina education department's charter school office--twice the number that officials there expected.

"That's good news for our office," said Grova Bridges, the director of the department. "We're pleasantly surprised."

There is still a hang-up, however, in that the state's universities have refused to approve charter schools even though they are allowed to by law.

"It's a very political decision, but I think it will change when they have to face a legislature that funds them," said Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform, a national group based in Washington that advocates charter schools.

The biggest development this year, Ms. Allen said, was the number of states that overcame political opposition to pass bills.

For example, Connecticut passed its charter school bill after failing in three previous efforts. Observers say, however, that its law is weak compared with North Carolina's.

The Connecticut bill allows 24 charters, half of which will be granted by local school boards. The remainder will be approved by the state school board and will be limited to 250 students each.

Nevertheless, the bill has proved popular. Some 40 applications are expected by this month's deadline.

"The reason the bill passed in the last session was that there was a lot of consensus building with the local teachers' union," said Yvette Melendez Thiesfield, the charter school program manager for Connecticut.

Resistance Remains

In spite of this year's successes, charter schools remain controversial, and that opposition helped kill charter school bills in Pennsylvania and Ohio after they began moving through the legislatures.

Idaho, Oregon, and Nevada failed even in getting charter bills beyond the committee level, Mr. Medler said.

"There certainly needs to be a significant number for laboratories, but you don't need so many that we don't know whether they're working," said Robert McClure, the co-director for the National Education Association's charter school initiative. The NEA is working in six states, including Connecticut, to establish charter schools.

"Charter schools are an untested phenomenon from which we need to learn more," Mr. Medler added.

Pennsylvania's on-again, off-again bill had faced an uphill battle after Gov. Tom Ridge's insistence that charter schools receive a blanket waiver from most state education regulations.

Late-night negotiations continued last week on the eve of the legislature's close.

The bill finally failed when school boards' and teachers' groups could not agree with the Republican governor on the details of a final compromise.

"We did very well considering this was not on anyone's radar screen several months ago," said Sean Duffy, the spokesman for the state education department. "What makes the glass half-full is that we had the conversation."

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