NEA Seeks To Help Start Five Charter Schools

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The National Education Association plans to spend $1.5 million over the next five years to help its affiliates start charter schools in five states and to study their progress.

"Frankly, we believe that, if done right, charters offer new and exciting possibilities," Keith B. Geiger, the union's president, said at a news conference here to announce details of the project. "Charter schools have the capacity to remove the bureaucratic handcuffs and offer NEA members opportunities to remake schools to respond to diverse learning needs."

The NEA will provide technical assistance to help the fledgling schools with administration, budgeting, staff training, and community relations--areas that existing charter schools have found problematic, Mr. Geiger said.

The first union-sponsored charter schools, which receive the same funding as other public schools but operate free from many state and district regulations, will open in Phoenix; San Diego; Colorado Springs, Colo.; Atlanta; and Lanikai, Hawaii. Three will be entirely new schools; two will be conversions of existing public schools.

The NEA project is working in states considered to have strong charter laws that give the new schools greater flexibility, such as Arizona and California, and states with weaker laws, such as Georgia and Hawaii.

Affiliates of the national union have vigorously opposed charter school legislation in some states, arguing that the laws would leave teachers unprotected and divert public money to experiments.

To address such concerns, the union has established 10 criteria that its charter schools must meet. They must be tuition-free and open to all students, nonsectarian, academically and fiscally accountable, and governed in part by parents and other community members.

The schools also must receive per-pupil funding equal to other public schools and must comply with the same safety, health, nondiscrimination, and equal-opportunity laws. Finally, the union insists that its charter schools share what they learn.

'A Different Face'

Ted Kolderie, a senior associate at the Center for Policy Studies in St. Paul, Minn., views the NEA's involvement as a spinoff effect of the burgeoning charter movement, which has now spread to 21 states.

"This is a different face for the NEA," said Mr. Kolderie, a leading proponent of charter schools. "We'll have to see what the schools turn out to be."

The union plans to pay for an independent team from the University of California at Los Angeles to conduct research on the schools. The union will then share this work with a national audience.

"It is not our intent to create islands of exclusive education," Mr. Geiger said.

In selecting schools to work with, the NEA has both encouraged its affiliates to start charters and has responded to teachers who have come forward with their own proposals.

Teachers at the charter schools in states with collective bargaining will have the same benefits and job protections as other teachers. But the schools will be free to experiment with instruction, assessment, and hiring, said Andrea DiLorenzo, the co-director of the project.

"We're trying to walk a fine line between encouraging flexibility and losing all the rights of employees," Mr. Geiger said.

The first NEA charter school opened in February in Hawaii, when the staff of the Lanikai Elementary School voted to convert to charter status under the state's 1994 law. The law allows teachers who do not want to work in such schools to transfer to other schools.

Donna Estomago, the principal of the school, called the NEA's assistance "the answer to our prayers."

The faculty was intrigued by the idea of becoming a charter school, but lacked focus until the Hawaii State Teachers Association and NEA staff members stepped in to help, said Margaret Cox, a teacher at the school.

In Colorado Springs, a 15-member committee has submitted a proposal to open a charter school next year under the existing union contract. But the school will use a more rigorous evaluation system, and teachers will work a longer day and year than other teachers in the district, said Jan F. Noble, the president of the Colorado Springs Education Association.

In starting a charter school, Ms. Noble said, "we are not turning our backs on public education. We want to make it better."

Vol. 15, Issue 31

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