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
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"
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
"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. …