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State Charter Laws Get New Round of Attention

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Six states and the District of Columbia passed legislation last year allowing charter schools within their borders for the first time. As of late last week, this year's new additions stood at two: Mississippi and Pennsylvania.

And in some observers' eyes, Mississippi's limited law--which permits six existing public schools to convert to charter status--barely even makes the count.

"Mississippi's [law] is just dead," said Jeanne Allen, the president of the Washington-based Center for Education Reform, which promotes charter schools and school choice. "It's about the weakest we've seen."

Rather than bringing a passel of new states into the charter school fold, this year's state legislative sessions have focused on retooling existing laws, experts said. Some see the attention to detail as a sign of maturity for the charter school movement. More than half the states have enacted charter laws.

"The most significant stuff is not so much new legislation, but partly it's the upgrading of existing laws and growth in programs in states that have had laws for some time now," said Ted Kolderie, a charter school analyst and proponent from St. Paul, Minn.

Pennsylvania is the exception.

In the final days before their summer recess, lawmakers there allowed Gov. Tom Ridge to declare victory after pushing since 1995 for charter schools. The Republican governor, who is also a booster of private school vouchers, signed the bill into law on June 19.

In another big state, Texas lawmakers before adjourning this month wrapped up action to substantially beef up their charter school program, boosting the cap from 20 to 100 for state-approved charter schools and permitting an unlimited number of such schools when at least 75 percent of the students they serve are dropouts or at risk of dropping out of school.

And in May, New York Gov. George E. Pataki issued a proposal that, if enacted, would be one of the nation's strongest charter school laws, observers say. The Republican governor's plan envisions an unlimited number of school charters issued by local boards of education--or, in the case of New York City, the schools chancellor--as well as public colleges and universities, the state board of regents, and a proposed state charter board.

But attempts to pass new charter school laws were scuttled this year in such states as Alabama, Indiana, Missouri, Nevada, Tennessee, Virginia, and Washington.

Pennsylvania Pressure

In concept, charter schools--typically created and run by parents, teachers, community groups, or others outside school districts--receive public funding but operate free of many state and local regulations. Nationwide, nearly 500 charter schools are up and running; 27 states, including Pennsylvania and Mississippi, and the District of Columbia have charter school laws on the books.

In Pennsylvania, events conspired this year to make charters a reality. For example, after gaining certain concessions, such as a prohibition on local school boards proposing and operating their own charter schools instead of approving an alternative, the state's 140,000-member National Education Association affiliate did not actively oppose the bill. That stance gave some Democratic lawmakers political cover to support the plan.

Legislators also agreed to funnel $7.5 million in aid to districts which may face a financial hardship from charter schools that lure students from private and parochial schools back into the public school system. And proponents got an added lobbying boost from the 67 recipients of charter school planning grants the state doled out last year.

"There was extraordinary pressure to get this bill passed now and give the governor a victory," said Thomas J. Gentzel, an assistant executive director for government relations for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, which lobbied against the bill.

Pennsylvania's new law allows an unlimited number of charter schools, including conversions of existing public schools, but all schools must be approved by local school boards. Charter groups that are denied approval cannot appeal to a state charter board until 1999. Up to 25 percent of a charter school's teaching staff can be uncertified. And while charter schools would receive fairly broad waivers from many state rules, they would still have to meet the state's rules for a 180-day or 990-hour academic year.

Flexibility vs. Oversight

Texas' new charter school provisions, which GOP Gov. George W. Bush signed into law on June 16, came bundled with other school choice matters. Lawmakers gave the proverbial financial carrot to districts that accept students under a voluntary state choice program that permits students in low-performing schools to transfer to other public schools. An amendment to use public dollars to help students turned away by districts to attend private and religious schools was narrowly defeated.

Some observers said the burgeoning charter school movement has dampened momentum for private-school-choice measures. But the issue of private school vouchers may well heat up in coming months in the District of Columbia, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, experts say.

In other recent or pending charter school action:

  • Ohio lawmakers late last week were wrangling over conflicting versions of a budget bill, one of which called for a pilot charter school program for Lucas County, which includes Toledo. Under the plan, school districts, the county education service center, and the University of Toledo could grant a limited number of charters.
  • Wrapped up in Minnesota's failed budget bill were provisions to do away with a 40-school cap on charters and expand the role of public universities in granting charters. Gov. Arne H. Carlson earlier this month vetoed the biennial funding bill because it did not include $150 million in tax credits and deductions for school costs, including private school tuition. The legislative session ended in May, but the Republican governor is expected to call a special session to revive the bill. ("Minn. Governor Vetoes School Aid Measure," June 18, 1997.)
  • Bills are pending in California and Massachusetts to raise those states' respective caps on charter schools.
  • In Michigan, lawmakers are considering a bill to tighten oversight of charter schools. And, inNorth Carolina, lawmakers are considering a bill that charter school proponents say would add new restrictions, including reducing the number of schools allowed within the same district.
  • In Arizona, lawmakers for the first time approved state capital-facilities aid for charter schools and requiring the schools each year to file an independent financial audit with the state.

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