Mich. Lawmakers Pass Bill To Fix Charter Law

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Michigan lawmakers have come to the aid of the state's first charter schools, which were denied funding last fall when a judge overturned the state's charter-school law.

In Massachusetts, meanwhile, officials have approved that state's first 14 charter schools, which are to open this coming fall.

The Michigan legislature, during a special session last month, passed a new charter law designed to address the judge's concern that the state board of education did not have adequate oversight of charter schools under the previous measure.

Lawmakers also passed a special appropriations bill that should allow state funds to flow to eight charter schools this semester. However, the legislature did not address the schools' expenditures from last fall, when many teachers, and bills, went unpaid because the state funding was blocked in court. (See Education Week, 11/30/94.)

"We're still faced with about $103,000 in debt" for teacher salaries and other bills from the first semester, said Hildy Paulson, an administrator at the New Branches charter school in Grand Rapids. Nonetheless, the school should be able to reopen for the second semester, she said, as long as the local intermediate school district adopts New Branches as a temporary alternative school, as the appropriations bill allows.

Gov. John Engler signed both bills into law late last month.

Appeal Pending

The appropriations measure apparently precludes funding for the controversial Noah Webster Academy, a network of home-schooling families that won a charter from a small rural school district.

Meanwhile, the new charter law, which goes into effect in April, clarifies that the state board of education has oversight of charter schools. Last November, Ingham County Circuit Judge William E. Collette ruled that under the previous law, charter schools do not meet the state constitution's definition of public education. (See Education Week, 11/09/94.)

That ruling is being appealed, and the legislature provided that the original law would be reinstated if appeals are successful.

Lawmakers also made several modifications that will become effective even if that happens. Those provisions include a cap of 75 on the number of charters that can be approved by all state universities and language that bars small school districts from granting charters.

Some charter-school proponents were critical of the new law because they say it requires the alternative public schools to be governed too closely by the same educational system from which they are trying to break away to experiment with new ideas.

Barbara Barrett, the executive director of the Michigan Center for Charter Schools, said the law has its flaws, but they can be addressed in the new session.

"At least there won't be any lag in charter-school activity in preparation for September," she said. "The legislature and the Governor are very supportive. Proponents will not be standing by and waiting. We will look at ways of improving the law."

Edison Charter

In Massachusetts, state officials gave final approval last month to plans for the state's first 14 charter schools.

In a blow to the nationally watched Edison Project, the list of approved charters includes only one group in which the private, for-profit reform project is a partner. Edison, founded by the media entrepreneur Christopher Whittle, had won tentative approval last spring to open as many as three charter schools in the state. (See Education Week, 03/23/94.)

But Edison and its local partners in Lowell and Worcester ran into difficulties finding suitable facilities. Final charter approval by the Massachusetts secretary of education was contingent upon applicants' securing school buildings and submitting budgets.

Four charter-school groups that won initial backing, including the Lowell and Worcester Edison Project applicants, were not on the final list announced Dec. 9 by state officials.

Two applicants that had not quite made the initial cut were awarded charters, for a total of 14.

Each school will be given a $10,000 startup grant, state officials announced. A $500,000 fund was carved out of the state budget to help charter groups begin work on curriculum and other matters, said Ann Marie Toda, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts executive office of education.

The Edison Project's lone Massachusetts charter stems from a joint application with the Horace Mann Foundation to operate the Boston Renaissance charter school. Edison is to implement its ambitious school design--combining rigorous academics, a longer school day and year, and computers in every child's home--at an urban school that will serve an initial enrollment of 600 students in kindergarten through 5th grade.

The Edison Project reached a self-imposed deadline last month without announcing any new financing from investors, which it needs before it can open schools in the fall. The New York City-based reform effort could operate as many as a dozen charter or public schools nationwide if funding comes through.

Colorado Developments

Stephen C. Tracy, a senior marketing representative for the Edison Project, said the venture was still looking for a site in Worcester in which a charter school could be opened by 1996. He was less optimistic about Lowell.

"Despite considerable effort in looking at potential properties, we have yet to turn one up that would meet our needs and be affordable," he said.

However, the project is working on a new charter application with the Springfield, Mass., school board, Mr. Tracy said.

In addition, the Colorado Springs district voted 4 to 3 last month to grant a charter to the Edison Project to run an elementary school beginning next fall.

In another recent charter-school development in Colorado, the Adams County district last month revoked the charter of the Academy of Charter Schools, citing what the district said were breach of contract and violations of state and federal law. The charter school allegedly did not move quickly enough to find a permanent site and was accused of not abiding by regulations for students with disabilities.

The school in Thornton, Colo., will remain open under the co-management of the district and the school's administrator.

Vol. 14, Issue 16

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