Okla., Ore. Bump Up Charter Law States to 36

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As the 1999 legislative sessions wind down, two more states have joined the charter school fold.

With the addition of Oklahoma and Oregon, the national tally of states with charter school laws on the books hits 36, plus the District of Columbia.

This year may prove a turning point. It's the first year since 1992 that fewer than three states have passed laws to allow charter schools. New York state passed its expansive law late last year.

But those tracking such initiatives say a slowdown in new state laws should come as no surprise.

In the earlier years of the charter school movement--Minnesota passed the first such law in 1991--the push was to get more states on board and to get schools opened.

Now, charter experts say, states are turning to "second generation" issues, such as facilities financing for charter schools and clarifying accountability and oversight, to fine-tune their existing laws.

The states with strong grassroots movements and political support for charters have passed laws by now, said Dave DeSchryver, a researcher with the Center for Education Reform, a Washington-based organization that tracks and promotes programs to increase educational choice.

And states that include the nation's largest cities, where some argue the greatest need or demand for charter schools exists, already have passed laws.

Several of the 14 states that have no charter school law are largely rural. Many have attempted to pass charter bills and failed, said Eric Hirsch, a senior policy analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver "They seem to be more apprehensive" to take the plunge into charter schools, he said, and are waiting to see the schools' results in other states.

Starts and Stalls

Charter schools are taxpayer-financed public schools that are designed to operate free from certain state rules and regulations in exchange for being held directly accountable for student results. Schools that fail to meet the goals outlined in their charters can be shut down.

Nationwide, an estimated 1,200 charter schools serve up to 300,000 students; charter schools now are up and running in 27 states and the District of Columbia, according to the Center for Education Reform. Arizona, California, and Michigan together enroll roughly half the nation's charter school students.

In Oregon, where supporters pushed for four years to get a charter law passed, Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber signed such a measure last month. It allows an unlimited number of charter schools, though they may not enroll more than 10 percent of a district's student population.

Gov. Frank Keating, a Republican, signed Oklahoma's law, which limits charter school development to 13 larger districts.

This year, attempts to pass a law creating charters stalled in states such as Indiana, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Montana, Nebraska, Tennessee, and Washington.

Expanding Laws

"In the big picture, there's still very strong momentum on the pro-charter side to expand the number of states and the strength of laws," said Jon Schroeder, the director of the Charter Friends National Network, based in St. Paul, Minn. "But I think we're going to see the rate of growth slow, and we'll see real growth on the qualitative side," he said, with a renewed focus on charter school sponsors and improving the quality of both existing and newly approved schools.

Some notable expansions of charter laws this year include:

  • Arkansas, Hawaii, and New Mexico will permit new start-up schools in addition to conversions of public schools to charter status.
  • Minnesota has made it easier for schools to convert.
  • New Mexico has raised its cap from five charter schools to 100 over the next five years. Other states, such as Massachusetts and Michigan, are considering raising their caps.

States such as Colorado have moved to put charter schools' per-pupil aid on a more equal footing with traditional public schools; many charter schools currently operate with less state aid. Colorado and several others, including Arizona, Minnesota, and New Mexico, have moved this year to make it easier for charter schools to obtain facilities aid.

Charter schools do not have the same authority as most regular public schools to raise money from the local tax base.

Study after study has found that locating suitable facilities and paying for them remains one of the biggest obstacles to charter school growth.

Creeping Caution?

But questions persist about accountability and oversight of charter schools, leading some lawmakers to call for caution.

Debates this year in Arizona, Michigan, and Ohio show the balance state legislators are trying to strike.

In Michigan, Senate Majority Leader Dan DeGrow said Republican Gov. John Engler's call to abolish the cap on university-sponsored charter schools is not likely to fly, for now, in the GOP-controlled legislature. A House bill to increase the cap is being put on hold, in part because of questions from both sides of the aisle about oversight and how the existing charters are playing out, said Rep. Paul DeWeese, the bill's Republican sponsor.

The Michigan legislature is likely to take a look at the charter school law in the fall.

"We want to make sure this enterprise is being run properly," said Mr. DeWeese, who supports charter schools.

In Ohio, lawmakers are wrangling over a proposal in the budget to allow charters to take root in more urban and low-performing districts. In the Senate, Democrats succeeded in attaching a statewide cap on the schools to the bill; the House has no such cap.

"The debate in the legislature now seems to be: Do we slow down and study things, or do we go forward until we have a credible reason to think otherwise?" said Clint F. Satow, the director of a statewide charter-school-advocacy group based in Columbus.

And in Arizona, a charter-reform package pitched by supporters as a clean-up of the current law failed in the final days of the 1999 session. Lawmakers such as Sen. Mary Hartley, a Democrat in the Republican-controlled legislature, said the package did not go far enough after a slew of amendments were stripped from the bill. Arizona's charter law is considered one of the nation's most open.

"We're trying to get away from that reputation as the Wild West of the charter movement," said Mary Gifford, a member of the state board for charter schools who opposed the amendments and helped craft the reform package. "We need to preserve the autonomy and innovation in our law and provide oversight without being onerous."

Vol. 18, Issue 41, Pages 20, 23

Published in Print: June 23, 1999, as Okla., Ore. Bump Up Charter Law States to 36
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