Education Dept. Goes Public At Charter School Conference

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The message from the Department of Education at its first national conference on charter schools here came through loud and clear: Public school choice is good; private school vouchers are not.

The banner stretched behind the podium in the conference's main hall read: "Public Charter Schools: Strengthening Education Through Innovation and Public School Choice."

And Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley's Nov. 4 address drove home the message to the crowd of roughly 800 charter school organizers and policymakers in attendance at the Nov. 3-5 conference held at the Renaissance Mayflower Hotel.

But those within the charter school movement are far from unanimous on the voucher issue. Some see publicly funded tuition vouchers as the next logical step in the evolution of school choice; others see charter schools as a preferable, public choice alternative.

More than 700 charter schools are up and running, meanwhile, in 23 states and the District of Columbia. These are publicly funded schools that, in exchange for being held accountable for results, operate free from many of the rules placed on traditional public schools. President Clinton is calling for 3,000 charter schools to be established by 2000.

"The charter school movement represents what is best about American public education--a willingness to change, to be impatient, to demand excellence, and, at the same time, a deep, abiding commitment to the democratic principles that define public education," Mr. Riley said in his speech. "Charter schools reflect a growing bipartisan mainstream agenda.

"Vouchers are divisive and detract from your good work and that of other successful public schools."

Timing is everything. And the adage definitely held true at this conference.

On the night of Nov. 4--the same day Mr. Riley delivered his speech--a voucher bill backed by Republican leaders died in the U.S. House. (See story, page 21.)

On the Sunday night before the conference opened, CBS aired a story on "60 Minutes" that profiled the troubled Marcus Garvey Charter School in Washington. The school gained national attention for an incident in which its principal was convicted of assaulting a reporter who had visited the school. The school's board of trustees voted last week to suspend the principal for 30 days without pay and place her on probation.

Talk about the "60 Minutes" piece, which raised questions about charter school accountability, surfaced in many conference sessions.

And in his welcoming address for the conference, the Education Department's assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education wasted no time in bringing up the story.

"My hope is that this conference sends out a different message," Gerald N. Tirozzi said.

In a session on "Community Relations--Communicating Your Successes!," panelists urged charter school operators to work on communications inside and outside their schools. Susan Steelman Bragato, the executive director of the California Network of Educational Charters, pointed to the CBS story as an example of the news media's power to shape public opinion.

"Many of your parents will have seen that [program]," she said. "And they may well have questions for you when you go home."

The Education Department circulated draft guidelines on how federal civil rights laws apply to charter schools.

While the document is still a work in progress, it highlights key civil rights requirements for all public schools. It includes basic information on topics such as recruitment and admission policies and how charter schools are affected by existing desegregation plans.

For copies, call the office for civil rights at (202) 205-5413.

A palpable sense of frustration toward local school district officials surfaced in many conference sessions as charter school organizers described the resistance their proposals faced from their local districts.

Greg A. Richmond, the charter schools director for the Chicago district, was one of a relatively few district representatives in attendance.

His reaction? "Tough crowd."


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