ST. LOUIS — 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.''
In Noah Webster's case, all contact with students will occur by long distance
``We'll be operating from a school site and the children will be taught at home under the auspices of our teachers,'' says David Kallman, the school's founder and an attorney who has argued many cases in favor of home schooling.
Concerns over religious bent
There are widespread concerns about spending public money to support home schooling, a practice viewed as predominantly the domain of conservative Christians.
Noah Webster has recruited students at conferences for Christian home-schoolers. But Mr. Kallman says it will not be a religious school.
Nearly 50 percent of the students enrolled for this fall are currently being home schooled, but another 40 percent are coming out of public schools.
``We have students that are Muslim and Jewish,'' Kallman says. ``Some parents have told us that they are atheists. Our focus is on the rights of parents to educate their children and make choices for them because they know their kids best. And as a public school that means all parents.''
Under Michigan's charter law, the school would receive $5,500 per student in state aid. After the first year's start-up costs, Kallman expects it would be tough to spend all that money.
``Whatever money we have left we plan on using to set up an individual student account and then give parents a laundry list of things that they can spend the money on, such as field trips, music lessons, and gymnastics classes. Any funds that are left at the end of the year will be put into a college scholarship fund for the student.''
But there is some question whether Noah Webster Academy will last that long. Last Thursday, the state Board of Education filed suit against the Michigan charter law seeking to keep public dollars from going to the controversial school.
``This is just a correspondence school that they're sticking a public-school label on,'' says William Young, attorney for the plaintiffs.
Kallman expected legal challenges from the beginning. ``The litigation has now started,'' he says.
``We've had a number of people look at our charter, and even people who aren't in agreement with us grudgingly say that it appears on the surface to be legal. They may not like it, but we followed the law.''
``At this point, the question is how many parents will withdraw their students from Noah Webster,'' says Michael Addonizio, assistant superintendent of the Michigan Department of Education.
``So far we've only heard from parents who are irate that these bureaucrats are trying to take away their educational choice,'' Kallman said late last week. ``I wouldn't be surprised if a few got scared off, but we haven't heard from anybody yet.''