EAI Gets Charter To Run Up to 12 Schools in Ariz.

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Education Alternatives Inc. is back in the business of running public schools.

Arizona has awarded the Minneapolis-based company a charter to operate as many as 12 independent public schools in metropolitan Phoenix.

The 15-year charter eventually could be worth as much as $24 million annually for the for-profit education-management company. That is based on a projected $2 million from the state per school, depending on enrollment.

EAI plans to open three elementary schools in the fall, followed by three more schools in 1998 and six in 1999. Some of the nine later-opening schools will be middle and high schools, the company said.

Charter schools "give you the chance to demonstrate what you can do when you have responsibility and accountability," Philip E. Geiger, the president of EAI, said.

In two setbacks in late 1995 and early 1996, the Baltimore and Hartford, Conn., school districts dissolved contracts under which EAI ran public schools. The contracts were canceled amid fiscal concerns and raging debates over the efficacy of EAI's instructional methods.

Since the end of the Baltimore and Hartford experiments, the company has had virtually no public school business with the exception of a short-lived contract to draw up a budget for a small district in upstate New York. It has continued to operate its own private schools in Minneapolis and Paradise Valley, Ariz.

Betting on Growth

The Arizona charter was granted Jan. 13 by a special state board that considers applications for charter schools, which are independent public schools run by groups of parents, teachers, and others outside the constraints of regular school districts.

Arizona has embraced the concept more than any other state. About 160 charter schools enrolling roughly 17,000 students have opened there in just two years.

Mary Gifford, the executive director of Arizona's State Board for Charter Schools, said EAI presented "a very sound business plan" and won unanimous approval from the board.

"It's very much different to come in and start your own school than to take one over," she said. "Our board thinks they will be successful."

EAI will build the 12 schools, and the principals, teachers, and others will all be company employees, Mr. Geiger said. However, there will not be enough money to provide a second adult in each classroom, which has been a hallmark of EAI's instructional method in other schools.

Mr. Geiger said the charter schools stand a better chance for success than EAI's failed efforts in Baltimore and Hartford "because we won't have to fight off the teachers' union."

The unions were the company's most bitter foes in the previous experiments.

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