Arizona Charts Course with Charter Schools Series: URBAN EDUCATION New Schools of Thoughts. Second in a Series

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LIKE millions of other parents, Herberta Millett was unhappy with the atmosphere and standards at her local public high school. "The kids were swearing and teasing my daughter, pulling her hair," Mrs. Millett says. "Her grades were starting to fall." Millett decided to enroll her daughter in the Heritage Academy, a small school with a back-to-basics curriculum and strict codes of conduct. Although Heritage is public and nonsectarian, it closely reflects the traditional values of Millett and others in the Mormon-dominated community of Mesa, Ariz. Millett said her daughter came home after the first day of school and told her, "'Oh mother, it's so wonderful not to hear cussing and swearing."' Heritage Academy is emblematic of an innovative - and controversial - reform movement in American education: charter schools. Set up to be free of regulations and experiment with new teaching methods, hundreds of charter schools have now sprung up in 19 states nationwide. Arizona, with some of the least-restrictive education laws in the nation, is providing one of the clearest views of where the movement is headed - and the problems that can crop up. In Arizona, the controversy lies not with the concept of charter schools but with the minimal requirements placed on them. Charter schools must meet minimum health, safety, and academic standards; not discriminate against applicants and not charge tuition; and avoid religious instruction. Arizona doesn't require charter-school teachers to be certified. Since the charter-schools movement began in Minnesota in 1991, many educators have hailed it as a promising way to improve public education in America. Charter schools offer parents choice in the kind of education their children receive, and they encourage more "ownership" of the school among teachers, students, and parents. But it remains to be seen what kind of lasting effect charter schools will have on the broader public education system. As one teacher says, "We don't want to reinvent the wheel." Educators are especially interested in what's happening in Arizona because charter schools here are among the nation's least restricted. Anyone - teachers, parents, businesses, community groups, even religious organizations - can charter a school here. Arizona also allows applicants to obtain charters from two statewide boards as well as from local school districts, which makes it easier to charter a school here than elsewhere. Although Arizona's law allowing charter schools was passed just last year, the state has about 50 opening this fall, second only to California, which has about 100. Freedom to teach Roughly half of Arizona's charter schools were formerly private or community-based schools. The rest are new. Many of them are the realization of teachers' lifelong dreams to run their own shops. …