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Chartered Territory

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Advocates bill it as a way to introduce diversity and autonomy into public education. Critics call it a subsidy for private schools. But one thing is clear: Few people are neutral about a new Minnesota law that encourages licensed teachers to start and run their own independent public schools under a contract or "charter'' with a local school board.

Under the Minnesota law, any licensed teacher can ask a local school board to authorize a charter, subject to approval by the state board of education. The law requires such schools to meet certain basic principles that characterize public education. For example, they cannot screen students, have a religious affiliation, charge tuition, or discriminate on the basis of race, religion, or disability.

Once the state approves a proposal, the local school board must devise a contract that spells out the outcomes pupils in the school are to achieve. Each school must have a board of directors, a majority of whose members are licensed teachers at the school. All staff members at the school and all parents of children enrolled there must be able to participate in the board's election.

But beyond those requirements, the law leaves charter schools essentially free from most rules and regulations that apply to public schools. They are to be educationally, financially, and legally independent--able to hire and fire their employees, devise their budgets, and develop their curriculum.

Parents and students would be able to choose such schools instead of those operated by the district. For each student, charter schools would receive a payment from the state equal to the average perpupil expenditure statewide. Lawmakers limited the number of charter schools to eight statewide and to no more than two per district.

So far, the Minnesota law has generated a surprising amount of grassroots activity from an unlikely array of interested parties. They range from citizens in Meadowlands who are hoping to save a small rural elementary school to the St. Paul branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which is considering applying for a charter to create a program that would provide educational and social services to entire families.

Many of those launching charter school plans say the real appeal lies in breaking free from a system that chokes creativity. "Right now, for many reasons, change within the system is real difficult,'' says Cynthia Stevens, an educational consultant who is putting together a proposal in the New Ulm school district. "I think what this will allow is for some ideas to surface from outside the system and to get a strong hold.''

In Northfield, plans to launch a chartered middle school are being devised by a group of parents who founded a private elementary school eight years ago, when the district refused to consider their proposal for an alternative public school. "We were sort of pained when we did it because we were all believers in public education,'' recalls Griff Wigley, one of the parents. "Here's a real opportunity for creating a school where we'd be assured of autonomy and yet it would be a public school.''

The charter school legislation offers no money for start-up costs, an obstacle that has discouraged some potential contenders. Some applicants have found another roadblock in the law. There is an inherent conflict, they say, in asking local school boards, which stand to lose from such proposals, to authorize charter schools. Many superintendents and school-board members, for example, are worried about the potential loss of dollars from their districts as students shift to charter schools. "It's sort of like putting the fox in charge of the chickens,'' notes Peggy Hunter, enrollment-options coordinator for the state department of education.

The original Minnesota bill would have enabled the state board to grant charters directly to schools, circumventing school districts altogether. But strong opposition from the two state teachers' unions and the Minnesota State School Boards Association killed that provision. "It was a totally political compromise at the end,'' says Jon Schroeder, an education assistant to U.S. Senator Dave Durenberger. "It was what put it over the top.''

The Minnesota Federation of Teachers remains the most vocal critic of the new law. The union claims the law lacks sufficient collective-bargaining guarantees for teachers, puts existing public schools at a disadvantage by not extending deregulation to all schools, and fails to ensure adequate accountability.

Charter schools would actually be more accountable than traditional public schools, according to Stephen Tracy, superintendent of the New Milford, Conn., school system and chairman of a task force that presented a charter schools proposal to the Connecticut legislature. "Because they exist on a charter,'' he says, "they stand to lose that charter if they violate its terms and conditions, whereas a state department of education is very reluctant to shut down a local school system or take it over.'' The more immediate accountability is to parents, he adds, who can choose not to send their children to the school.

While it continues to spur debate in Minnesota, the charter schools idea also is spreading to other parts of the nation. Lawmakers in at least six states and a handful of school districts are either exploring or planning to introduce charter proposals this year. Senator Durenberger of Minnesota, meanwhile, is seeking federal funding for such schools. --Lynn Olson

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