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Charter schools create believers, critics in midst of political debate

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BOISE, Idaho — In her small timber town in west Idaho, Christina Williams enrolled her son in the closest public school because she had few other choices near her home.

But as she watched him struggle for years — many mornings prying him out of bed and forcing him to go to school — Williams sought an alternative to the traditional classroom. The single mother now drives about 140 miles roundtrip each day to her 12-year-old son's charter school in Sandpoint.

"It's killing my poor little car, but it is so worth the drive to me," said Williams. "He was not getting the education he needed."

Williams would like a closer alternative, but Idaho allows just six new charter schools a year.

Several other states also put strict limits on the number of new charter schools. Another 11 states don't allow charters at all, even though the federal government has created a $4.35 billion competition to encourage charters and other educational innovations.

Most states adopted only modest measures to improve charter schools as a result of the "Race to the Top" competition and no new substantive charter school laws were passed, said Jeanne Allen, president and founder of the Center for Education Reform, a school choice advocate based in Washington, D.C.

"I can't tell you how much I wish Race to the Top would have created a firestorm," Allen said. "The reality is, it didn't."

Charter schools get taxpayer money but have more freedom than traditional public schools do to map out how they'll meet federal education benchmarks. They are arguably more popular than ever, with a record 5,000 operating in 39 states and the District of Columbia, serving more than 1.5 million children. About 300,000 children are on waiting lists.

Charter schools draw fire from teachers' unions and other education groups, who say taxpayer money should be spent to fix traditional public education system rather than creating schools that have less oversight from state and local officials.

Alabama's politically powerful teachers' union helped kill a bill — introduced by Gov. Bob Riley in response to Race to the Top earlier this year — that would have allowed charter schools.

"The dollars we do have need to go into the classrooms of schools we're operating," said Paul Hubbert, executive director of the Alabama Education Association.

States qualify for Race to the Top money based on a scoring system that gives states with charter schools a significant advantage. Of the 500 points a state can receive, 40 are related to charter schools.

At the start of the competition, Education Secretary Arne Duncan went so far as to warn states that ban or restrict charter schools were jeopardizing their chances to win a slice of the money. But he backed off that threat, and many states, like Idaho, took that as a signal that they didn't need to change their charter school laws.

A bill to allow more charter schools for certain groups of students — such as minorities or those with disabilities — to open each year was scuttled as the Idaho Legislature focused mostly on regular public schools, which face the worst budget year for public education in the state's history.

The first Race to the Top grants were awarded in March to Tennessee, which received $500 million, and Delaware, which received $100 million. Both were lauded for their charter school laws among other attempts to improve education.

Tennessee expanded charter-school eligibility only in 2009. Louisiana, Illinois, Michigan and Massachusetts also eased or eliminated limits on charter schools in the past year.

North Carolina and New York are among states that, like Idaho, are holding tight to their caps on the specialized schools.

One state — Mississippi — let its charter school law expire last year. Mississippi lawmakers passed new legislation in late March that would allow low-performing schools to be restructured to become either charter schools or "new start" schools, both of which are designed to revamp management and increase parental involvement.

Applications for the second round of Race to the Top awards are due in June. Kentucky's legislature is considering allowing charter schools, and Hawaii officials are considering easing charter restrictions as they vie for the federal funds.

"When you put money on the line and it's the most difficult budget faced in years, people start listening for a variety of reasons," said Todd Ziebarth with the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

On the Net:

National Alliance for Public Charter Schools: www.publiccharters.org

The Center for Education Reform: www.edreform.com

National Conference of State Legislatures: www.ncsl.org

Associated Press Writer Dorie Turner reported from Atlanta.