By Laurel Shaper Walters, writer of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
WHEN Noah Webster Academy opens this fall, none of its 1,300 students - who are spread across the state of Michigan - is expected to show up at the school. Instead, state-certified teachers at this public school will oversee the work students do at home. The school plans to use computers, toll-free telephone numbers, and other new technology to offer a range of courses to students.
Noah Webster is one of about 60 "charter schools" planning to open across the United States this fall. Eleven states now have charter laws allowing publicly funded schools to operate outside the traditional bureaucracy.
While charter laws and schools vary from state to state, they are designed to breed innovations within the public-education system. School districts or universities enter into contracts or charters with existing or new schools. Under the charter, the schools are free from district regulations and union guidelines as long as they deliver specific academic results.
Michigan's Noah Webster Academy has attracted more controversy than most charter schools. "It is an exotic that has little to do with the mainline issue," says Ted Kolderie of the Center for Policy Studies in St. Paul, Minn.
Yet, along with the other charter schools opening nationwide this fall, this case illustrates the potential of the charter-school movement to change public education. The 11 states with charter laws now on the books are Arizona, California, Colorado, Georgia, Kansas, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Mexico, and Wisconsin.
In Colorado, which passed charter legislation in 1993, 12 new charter schools are opening this fall, including a school for the arts and sciences, a science-and-technology academy, a school for gifted and talented students, and a preschool for "at-risk" children.
In Minnesota, which became the first state to pass a charter law in 1991, four new charter schools will open this fall.
The Dakota/Open High School, located near a Dakota Indian reservation in Morton, Minn., plans to teach the Dakota language to native-American students. An existing private school in Emily, Minn., is converting to a public charter school. Charter School Faces Resistance
Although California's charter law does not allow private schools to become charters, about a dozen existing public schools are converting to charter schools. Another 19 start-up schools are opening across the state under the charter law.
Several "independent-study" schools have also been approved as charters in California. And there is a proposal for an "on-line" computer-based charter school similar to Noah Webster Academy.
"The charter concept is built around getting away from measuring things like seat time and class size and instead focusing on results and what students learn," says Eric Premack, a charter-school consultant with BW Associates in Berkeley, Calif. "But unlike the Noah Webster program, students in California's independent-study charter schools have to show up at the school site at some time. …