A Palatable Choice

Lawmakers in a number of states are embracing charter schools as a politically safe alternative to vouchers

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During a family vacation to Disneyland last December, New Mexico legislator Robert Perls spotted a newspaper account of a new California law permitting the creation of charter schools. Intrigued by the concept, which gives educators wide berth to design and operate publicly funded schools, Perls called his state's legislative-services bureau before he returned home and asked the staff to begin drafting a bill that would allow charter schools in New Mexico. A freshman representative who does not serve on the legislature's education committee, Perls nonetheless persuaded his colleagues, over the objections of the panel's chairwoman, to pass the bill.

The Democratic lawmaker's enthusiasm is emblematic of the explosive growth of the charter schools movement over the past year. Pioneered by Minnesota in 1991, charter schools legislation was adopted only by California in 1992. But this year, 16 states considered the idea, and five have enacted their own charter schools programs.

The heightened level of interest is unlikely to abate any time soon. By sanctioning the schools, lawmakers can show that they are friendly to education reform without taking on the political risks associated with school choice, vouchers, and other similar ideas. “Charter schools seem to be in some respects a `mom and apple pie' thing,” observes Rob Melnick, director of the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University. “It has the flavor of all these good principles of innovation, but it doesn't have the emotional charge of vouchers or site-based management.”

So far this year, New Mexico, Georgia, Colorado, Massachusetts, and Wisconsin have adopted charter schools legislation. At press time, similar measures were pending in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Michigan.

Still, the legislative response to such proposals has not been unanimous. Arizona and Wyoming, for example, rejected charter schools bills, and a measure in Louisiana ran up against the education establishment and was set aside for further study. In most of the other states, however, lawmakers simply did not move the bills before adjourning. A bill in Florida disintegrated because of disagreements over how to define charter schools.

Even in states where charter schools proposals have languished, some lawmakers who have been staunch opponents of vouchers and choice have warned that they will reconsider the idea next session if the public schools do not improve. Such sentiments seem widespread. Clint Bolick, vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Justice and a longtime supporter of vouchers, recalls participating in a debate with a California lawmaker who opposed school choice but backed charter schools. “It's very politically palatable,” Bolick says. “In an effort to forestall private school choice, many reformers are going halfway.”

Action on charter schools bills this year also has reflected a significant shift in thinking about the process for establishing the new institutions. Under the original Minnesota law, the authority to grant charters sought by groups of teachers and parents was given to local school boards. However, charter advocates have since become concerned that local officials would see the nascent schools as a threat and throttle the process by refusing to approve any applications. As a result, several of this year's bills have vested more power with the state, through a dual-approval or appeals process.

“The idea is at least to have an appeal to the state board so that you don't have a local board controlling what all the charter schools are going to be,” says Connie Koprowicz, an educationpolicy associate at the National Conference of State Legislatures. Georgia's new law, for example, does not give the state overriding authority. But it does require that the state board, along with the local board, approve each charter. Two-thirds of a school's instructional staff, as well as twothirds of parents attending a special meeting, must also approve the measure. If a school board rejects a charter, the state may hold a hearing at which the board must explain its reasoning.

Georgia is the first state to adopt charter schools legislation without restricting the number of charters it will issue. California caps the number at 100, while Minnesota began with only eight but recently raised that to 20. “We don't think school reform should be a competitive process,” says John Rhodes, director of charter schools for the Georgia education department. “If there is a cap, then it is competitive.”

Although only a small proportion of students will attend charter schools as a result of the caps elsewhere, backers say their impact will be much broader. Ted Kolderie, a senior associate at the St. Paul-based Center for Policy Studies, maintains that districts will be forced to respond to the innovations and creativity of the charter schools, and that, in turn, will drive legislators to support the concept.

“It's a liberating idea for governors and legislators,” Kolderie says. “What they have always been told is that there are just two choices: You're either for public education, in which case you accept public school in its existing institutional form, or you go for vouchers, in which case you're for private education. It turns out there is a real option.”

New Mexico is currently in the early stages of approving its first five charter schools.

Despite Representative Perls' success with fellow lawmakers, he has not been as lucky with the teachers at his 8-year-old's school. They voted against applying for one of the $5,000 planning grants now available to schools interested in pursuing charter status.

Vol. 05, Issue 01, Page 23

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