Proceeding with caution

October 30, 2003

SINCE THE opening of the nation's first charter school in Minnesota in 1992, a long list of lessons learned has been logged. Maryland school boards, which are putting final touches on the policies they'll use to launch their first charter schools, need take note.

For it's during this early stage of policy development that they should build a foundation to protect the taxpayers' investment and the children who are to participate in experimentally run schools.

Maryland's charter school law has been criticized by many in the charter school movement for its restrictiveness - a lot of what experimenters might like to try is precluded. Some critics predict that innovation will be squelched by tying public charter schools to many of the same operating standards as the regular public schools and giving school boards control over them.

And on first glance, it's hard to see how a public charter school might differ in more than name from the other schools. Perhaps Maryland's charter schools will be stronger hybrids for having this infrastructure. It's too soon to know.

Most important at this stage is establishing local guidelines that do the following:

Put in place a rigorous application process that gives smart start-up applications for charter schools a chance to succeed. Good ideas need cheerleaders and technical support, and sometimes financial support through the early phases, from the district.

Make effectiveness the yardstick by which alternative curricula, school calendars, etc., will be measured: These should be backed up by educational reality. Include in that a clear expectation for lines of leadership authority: What authority will belong to the chartering organization vs. the school administration? Who settles disagreements? From whom does the principal take orders?

Write the strongest charters possible - they are contracts - including clear and specific instructions for what will happen to funds, facilities and children if a school fails, as do an estimated 6 percent to 11 percent nationally. Every parent whose child enters a public charter school, and the taxpayers who fund them, have the right to know what to expect.

Take into account the three most common reasons that charter schools fail: lack of appropriate facilities, lack of financial viability, and failure to meet a community's needs or attract enrollment. In each area, the local policy and regulation must be specific before the first application arrives in the mailbox.

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