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State board OKs 3 new charter schools

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Parents: Want your child in a small school, where you have a chance to help run it and teachers have flexibility in instruction?

The Utah Board of Education on Friday gave the OK to three public schools to fit your tastes.

They're called charter schools. And they'll start up in Cache and Alpine school district boundaries in fall 2002.

"We're excited. We're happy for all the children and parents who will be brought at least one other (educational) choice," said Patty Peterson, founder of the new Thomas Edison Charter School in Cache.

The sentiment is shared by founders of the Timpanogos Academy and John Hancock Charter School in northern Utah County. All the schools will enroll elementary schoolchildren, stress academic rigor, and ask for parents to volunteer a few hours a month.

The schools have to wait a few months to assemble or elect governing boards while the state school board tinkers with a few technicalities. Otherwise, they work to pin down facilities, hire principals and seek donors to help them set up shop.

"Now we can get down to the real work of opening this school for the kids," Timpanogos Academy Chief Administrative Officer Eric Smith said.

Charter schools are public schools with specialities, such as the arts or environment. They cannot charge tuition. Currently, Utah has eight such schools under the 1998 Charter Schools Act.

The schools receive the same funding a regular school district school receives under a new state law. But they don't receive the $62,500 in start-up funds the first eight schools did.

The state school board gave its blessing to the schools, which had been denied by local districts. Alpine didn't have rules by which to weigh the applicants, and Cache had financial concerns.

But Friday's approval didn't come without angst. Some board members worried about schools' compliance with state laws, how they will take students with disabilities, and whether they will have open enrollment (they will) or affect local school districts' pocketbooks.

Cache School district, for instance, has said the Thomas Edison Charter School will require diversion of $1.2 million in per-student funds. The Cache school board therefore denied the application.

The state board later said the district can't do that under the law. But it also decided to tell the Legislature it worries about how districts with shrinking or stagnant enrollments may be hit hard by charter schools.

Meanwhile, Deputy State Superintendent Gary Carlston attempted to assuage board concerns on whether charter schools will live up to state regulations. "Until the school is actually in business, you don't know."

The state regularly reviews the charters for that reason.

"We have a vested interest in the success of these charter schools because they are serving our children," board Vice Chairwoman Janet Cannon said.

The board approved the schools with one dissenter: Earl McCain of Morgan, who indicated he was exercising "civil disobedience" to the law.

For information on Timpanogos Academy, call Eric Smith at 801-201-0435 or go to www.utahchartercourse.org. For the John Hancock Charter School, go to www.utahcharterschools.org

For the Thomas Edison Charter School, go to www.scholes-tech.com/cachecharter.

E-mail: jtcook@desnews.com