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House panel approves formation of charter schools

A bill to create charter schools as part of the governor's Schools for the 21st Century initiative eked by the House Education Standing Committee Monday.

The committee voted 5-4 to forward substitute HB145 after hearing from supporters, including the State Office of Education, PTA and Utah Education Association, and opponents, including private schools and local school officials. Debate centered on charter schools."It does give parents who can't afford private schools (the chance) to try something new," said Rep. Tammy Rowan, R-Orem. "Let's give this every chance to be heard."

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Brian Allen, R-Cottonwood Heights, was drafted under Gov. Mike Leavitt's watch and follows legislative task force study.

The measure would allow a three-year pilot of eight charter schools, aimed at improving learning and encouraging teaching innovations as a companion to public schools. It carries a $500,000 appropriation for charter schools and $1.5 million for Schools for the 21st Century.

When questioned, Allen assured the committee that funds were available.

"I was told today they (leadership) have secured the funding," he said, inciting audience chatter. "I don't know where they found it or where it came from."

Schools for the 21st Century would allow teachers in 60 participating schools to receive up to $2,000 each for meeting goals. Schools could get up to $10,000 in start-up funds.

Charter schools are public, provide parental choice and emphasize a variety of curricula in addition to the basics. Such schools are in nearly 30 states.

But lack of local control was a concern of opponents and supporters.

The State Board of Education would grant and oversee charter schools in order to maintain uniform pilot evaluations, Allen said. Local boards may make recommendations on applicants, who may range from teachers to parents, and determine whether to convert buildings to charter schools.

UEA vice president Pat Rusk supports the bill, but urged local control after the pilot.

Salt Lake City Superintendent Darline Robles said she opposes the bill because the diversity of her district, including English as a second language students, is not guaranteed charter school inclusion.

Allen said he was sympathetic to such concerns but hopes local officials will come on board. "We need their input," he said.

Charter schools would receive the state's basic education funding, plus half of a district's per-pupil funding. The schools and their governing bodies, which would include parents, would be held liable in legal challenges, but new language would offer access to state risk management funds.

Opponents fear charter schools could become elitist or threaten private schools with publicly funded duplicates.

"Charter schools are not turning out the way they were supposed to be," said Gayle Ruzicka, Eagle Forum president, who called the schools fascist in their funding.

Allen said such concerns arose when several states passed charter school laws.

"It's hard to say how to quantify up front how it makes a difference until we try it."