Nation's First 'Charter' School Clears a Key Hurdle

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A private Montessori school in rural Minnesota last week cleared a key hurdle on its way to becoming the nation's first "charter" school, able under state law to receive public funds while remaining free from most outside control.

By a 5-to-2 vote, the Winona school board approved the request of the Bluffview Montessori School to become a charter school. That decision must now be approved by the state board of education and made official in a three-year contract with the school district.

State approval could come as early as next month, enabling the elementary school to go public by next fall.

Under the charter- schools measure passed by the legislature last May, school boards can authorize one or more licensed teachers to create new public schools that would be free from most current rules and regulations. The law also enables existing private or public schools to become charter schools. (See Education Week, April 3, 1991 .)

Such schools must meet state standards for what students should know, and may not screen students, charge tuition, or have a religious affiliation. The law allows up to eight such schools statewide.

But the charter schools are to be educationally, financially, and legally independent: able to hire and fire their employees, devise their budgets, and develop their curriculum. Each school must be run by a beard of directors, a majority of whose members are licensed teachers.

Breaking the Mold

Backers of the law believe it will spur innovations in education, free from existing strictures.

"I just think this is the beginning of one of the most mold- breaking... changes in education that's come up--this concept that we're going to have [public] schools run directly by faculty and parents, separate from an overseeing local school beard," said Michael J. Dorer, the principal of the Bluffview school.

But Joliene W. Olson, one of two beard members who opposed Bluffview's request, warned that the charter legislation was a "backdoor into the voucher system."

And Robert Mclntire, the superintendent of the Winona public schools, predicted that the proposal would be a "financial drain to our district that's already financially strapped."

The state will provide charter schools with about $3,050 per student. If the Bluffview school accepts 40 to 50 new students next year, as it now plans, and all of those students transfer from the local public schools, that could mean a toss of up to $150,000 in state aid to the district.

But Stuart Miller, the president of the board, said if the district no longer has to serve those students, the loss of state revenues is "a wash."

Charter schools represent a way to bring "true choice into the public school domain" and to break down the status quo, Mr. Miller contended.

Vol. 11, Issue 13, Page 18

Published in Print: November 27, 1991, as Nation's First 'Charter' School Clears a Key Hurdle
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