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Sweeping education initiative debuts

Characterized as Utah's most sweeping educational enhancement legislation, a bill that would forward the governor's educational reform initiatives via Schools for the 21st Century and charter schools was made public Friday.

"Both of the initiatives in the bill . . . really turn a lot of power and control back to the local school itself to outline what their vision is and see how it best meets the needs of students," said HB145 sponsor Rep. Brian Allen, R-Cottonwood Heights."I think that all of these are companions to help enhance what we're already doing with public schools in general. We're trying to build on what we've got. I think what we're (already) doing is dang good."

The measure includes $500,000 for charter schools and $1.5 million in ongoing funds for Schools for the 21st Century, part of which can be transferred from former Centennial Schools funds.

The bill was drafted under the watch of Gov. Mike Leavitt and follows a study by a charter schools legislative task force, of which Allen was co-chairman. It is to face the House Rules Committee on Monday.

Charter schools are public schools providing parental choice and autonomy from state control. Such schools, now in nearly 30 states, emphasize a variety of curricula in addition to the basics.

The measure would authorize up to eight charter schools, aimed at improving learning and encouraging teaching innovations. Tuition is prohibited and teachers must be certified.

Parochial or home schools are ineligible for charters, or contract agreements detailing goals, school operations and requests for state rule waivers.

The State Board of Education would oversee accountability, funding and charter status, including charter approval. Local boards may make recommendations on applicants, who may range from teachers to parents.

Charter schools would receive half of a district's per-pupil funding. Students, still considered residents of the district, would receive at-risk and special education monies they already received.

Charter schools and their governing bodies, which would include parents, would be held liable in legal challenges. Charters may be revoked for failure to meet performance requirements and money mismanagement, among other reasons.

Charter schools may occupy existing school buildings, but districts would not be required to lease or sell. Conversion of an operating school would require support from two-thirds of its teachers and parents, or a simple majority for a charter school that operates within a regular public school.

"It will be interesting to see what actually comes out of it," Allen said. "I've heard a lot of great ideas."

Associate State Superintendent Steve Laing, a member of the charter schools task force, says the bill likely is something he can live with.

"I think it's a political expediency for some elected officials and as it appears, should be something we can experiment with," he said.

Allen acknowledges charter schools will bring considerable debate. A handful of local school boards already have voiced opposition.

But the same is unlikely for Schools for the 21st Century, which would expand on Centennial and Modified Centennial school initiatives, including parental involvement. Up to 60 schools could be selected annually for the three-year program.

Applicants would develop plans to implement technology into curriculum, identify areas for academic improvement (priority going to language and math emphases), and create improvement plans and evaluation methods.

Participants would receive $5,000 to $10,000 in start-up funds, depending on school size, plus $27 per student. A second-year participant would get $9 per student.

Teachers in achieving schools would be rewarded. Compensation is estimated at $500 per educator in the program's second year and up to $2,000 per teacher in the third year.