Fewer Rules, Better Schools: Charter Schools Are Starting Up All across the Country, despite Opposition by Teachers' Unions

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With its small classes and specialized curriculum, the Arizona School for the Arts easily could pass for a private school. But like the hundreds of other "charter schools" that have opened across the United States in the last five years, it operates with government money - although it needn't adhere to government rules and regulations.

In exchange for administrative autonomy, charter schools must meet strict performance standards, an approach, contends education-guru Chester Finn, that will "reinvent public education." But teachers' unions dislike charter schools because they operate outside collective-bargaining agreements. Other educational organizations dismiss charter schools as a passing fad that will affect few children.

Still, amid the contentious world of education reform, charter schools enjoy a remarkable degree of broad-based support, widely considered a middle ground between voucher plans (which provide tax dollars for private-school tuition) and the traditional system. Indeed, charter schools have been pushed by everyone from liberal academics and President Clinton to the Republican Congress, which year earmarked $55 million for the experiment.

"There should be some public-school choice and charter schools are one way that's happening," Deputy Education Secretary Marshall Smith tells Insight. The first charter school opened in Minnesota in 1991; they quickly spread to 15 other states and the District of Columbia. Now there are almost 500 in operation, and the Education Department in October awarded $17 million in seed money for future schools.

Supporters of charter schools, which have been started by former teachers, parents and even private companies, contend that they enjoy a flexibility impossible at public schools, where teachers labor under byzantine regulations and an inefficient central administration.

The City Academy, the nation's first charter school, in St. Paul, Minn., serves teenage dropouts, for example. Director Milo Cutter tells Insight that freedom from a central administration gives her the latitude that's crucial in dealing with problem kids. "We say, 'let's figure out a solution,' rather than `I have to get this approved.' That kind of figure doesn't work. …