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Parental Choice Facing First Major Test : Minnesota is taking the lead in allowing ‘chartered schools.’ Control is taken from districts and given to teachers.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

As school districts around the country line up to adopt various forms of open enrollment, or parental choice, some educators are raising a troubling question: Where is the choice if all schools are basically alike and school boards hold a monopoly on public education?

Minnesota will be the first state in the nation to attempt an answer by allowing the creation of independently run public schools, known as “chartered schools,” as early as this fall.

A state law passed in June in effect deregulates public schools, taking the reins away from the school districts and handing them to teachers and, to a lesser extent, parents. The law gives certified teachers, backed by parents, the right to apply for charters to set up and run their own schools.

BACKGROUND: With chartered schools, the role of the school board, traditionally the educational system’s dictator, fades to that of a monitor. Teachers must demonstrate to their sponsoring school board that they are performing on agreed-upon educational goals, but they gain unprecedented classroom freedom.

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The new law allows for eight pilot schools, with no more than two per district.

The North Branch, Minn., consolidated school district, which has 2,600 students from five towns an hour’s drive north of Minneapolis and St. Paul, has submitted the state’s first application for a chartered school. It could open sometime this year or as late as fall 1992, operating as a separate entity within an existing school.

Chartered schools are funded from the same pool of public money now spent on traditional public schools. Teachers would apply for a leave of absence from their regular jobs, and maintain basic pay and benefits.

Open enrollment will allow students to pick schools in whatever district they choose, and their state education dollars will follow them.

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Chartered schools will also be eligible for other money, including per-student allocations for building upkeep and equipment. But they will lack bonding authority to pay for new buildings, and instead will have to lease space from others. They could also contract with a district for specialized services such as a part-time principal or bookkeeper. They are subject to the same financial audits required of school districts.

They may serve special groups, but must be integrated, non-sectarian and otherwise non-discriminatory.

PRO AND CON: Supporters say chartered schools, also called “outcome-based schools,” will spur innovation as the focus turns to results.

“The problem with school choice so far is that there aren’t enough choices,” said Chris Pipho, an official of the Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based interstate organization. “We have here a proposal not to kill off public schools but to experiment with a new brand of choice.”

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The two major teachers’ unions, the Minnesota Education Assn. (MEA) and the Minnesota Federation of Teachers (MFT), vigorously opposed the chartered school plan. The Minnesota School Boards Assn. did not like it either.

“Here we are using public money to fund quasi-private schools,” said Rose Hermodson, lobbyist for the MFT. Teachers were brought into discussions only as an afterthought, and the existing system is already delivering a wide array of creative options, she said.

OUTLOOK: For North Branch fourth- and fifth-grade teacher Allan Jones, chartered schools offer the prospect of true experimentation. He is one of four North Branch teachers who together have applied for a charter. “American society has changed dramatically--schools have changed little,” he said. “Traditional American education is meeting the needs of fewer kids than it did in the past. We need to alter our instructional approach to pull kids back into the mainstream.”

Young people lack the problem solving and critical thinking skills they need, he said. Toward that end, Jones expects to see many chartered schools focus on seamless teaching that combines subject areas and encourages student creativity.

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Jeff Knickerbocker, North Branch school board chairman, said: “I view charter schools as giving the school boards even greater power and effect than they have now,” adding that if the board is unhappy with the school’s performance, it will not have to renew its three-year contract.

In an inner-city setting, the St. Paul branch of the NAACP is considering applying for its own charter, drawing on its educator-rich membership to serve minority and white students.

“We’re looking at directing our energies at two groups--dropouts and fast-track-to-becoming-dropouts,” said Steven Zachary, branch president.


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