IMPATIENCE with the slow pace of school reform is causing states across the country to legislate new options.
"Charter schools" are the latest vehicle for change. Minnesota pioneered the idea in 1991 with a law allowing licensed teachers to operate publicly funded schools under contract or charter with a school board.
In the past two years, five states have passed charter-school laws. Gov. Roy Romer (D) of Colorado signed charter-school legislation last week. And more than a dozen states have introduced charter bills in the past year.
Charter schools are given wide latitude as long as their students meet performance goals established in the contract. "Their continuation depends on their students' performance," says Ted Kolderie of the Center for Policy Studies in St. Paul, Minn.
Under the Minnesota law, charter schools cannot screen students, charge tuition, discriminate, or have a religious affiliation, but all other state regulations are waived. If students fail to meet performance goals outlined in the contract, the school's charter can be revoked.
State and local aid follows students if they leave a regular public school and enroll at a charter school.
Although most school boards and teachers unions are opposed to charter schools, President Clinton and Education Secretary Richard Riley have endorsed the concept. A bill that would provide start-up aid to charter schools is pending in Congress.
The specifics differ from state to state, but the common goals are to foster innovation, increase student options, free teachers and schools from regulation, and introduce more accountability into the public-school system.
The charter concept expands the idea of public-school choice but does not go as far as vouchers, which would allow parents to use taxpayer dollars to send their children to any public or private school.
"I view charter schools as a way to reform the whole system," says Governor Romer. "Quite often the institutional form is so rigid that we need to break that form in order to have the opportunity to try some things differently."
Romer considers the new legislation in Colorado to be a research-and-development project. "It's a controlled experiment," he says. "And that's very much needed."
CHARTER-SCHOOL laws could lead to a redefinition of public education, some experts say.
"The idea that the state will say it's OK for more than one public organization to be offering public education in the same community has big implications," Kolderie says. "People don't know where that's going to lead, but it could create a lot of dynamics in the system."
Minnesota's experience is already offering lessons. The state has approved eight charter schools since 1991. Two schools are already open; the other six expect to begin classes in the fall.
Most of the charter schools approved so far target students who are not being served well by the current system. A school for deaf students will open next fall, for example.
The first charter school in the nation - City Academy in St. Paul, Minn. - opened last fall and held graduation ceremonies for 16 students last week. The school operates year-round and enrolls students who have dropped out of traditional high schools.
Milo Cutter, one of the teachers who founded the school, saw the need for a small program that could tailor coursework to the needs of individual students.
"When the legislation for charter schools came out," Ms. Cutter says, "it seemed to suit exactly what we wanted to do."
"City Academy works primarily with kids who were not attending school," says Peggy Hunter, who administers the charter-school program for Minnesota's Department of Education. "They are certainly showing some success in being able to both draw these kids back off the streets and getting them to graduate."
A more controversial charter went to Bluffview Montessori School in Winona, Minn. It was operating as a private school before applying for a charter last year.
Critics say the school simply wanted to solve its financial problems, but a school board approved the charter. Bluffview became a charter school in March and a handful of new students left public schools to attend. Next year, Bluffview's enrollment is expected to double.
At this point, charter schools in Minnesota are expanding the current system rather than competing with it.
"What we're seeing so far is that school boards would rather not bring in new and innovative programs," Kolderie says. "Proposed schools that would take mainline, regular kids are the ones that seem to get the maximum resistance from boards and superintendents."
Joan Riedl has experienced that resistance. As a teacher at North Elementary School in Princeton, Minn., Ms. Riedl has structured her class to offer small-group learning and an increased emphasis on technology.
"When I heard about the charter schools, it made sense to me," she says. So Riedl proposed a new school based on the ideas she is already using successfully at North Elementary.
But the school board wouldn't approve the proposal. "What we heard so much was: `We don't have enough information; we can't make a decision,' " Riedl says.
"They were blocking her, as districts often do," says Ms. Hunter of the state education department. "It's those kinds of blocks that really hamper creative teachers from being able to do something new and innovative."
THE debate about charter schools has raised "some very important questions about the role of the school board and who it represents," Kolderie says.
Thomas Shannon, executive director of the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va., says the association is not opposed to charter schools.
"But once government gives a right," he says, "it's very difficult to take it away. School boards are much better advised to be very tough on the front end. In the final analysis, it's all going to be back in their lap if the charter school doesn't work."
In the midst of the debate, some school districts in Minnesota are making changes without actually chartering schools.
"What we're finding is that the charter-school proposals are a catalyst for getting districts to start paying attention and listening to what the learners are needing and the parents are requesting," Hunter says.
In one case, a group of parents requested a Montessori alternative school for the district but were turned down several years in a row. So they worked up a charter-school proposal and took it to the local school board.
"The board was about to approve it when the administration decided to have another look at the situation," Hunter says.
Within two weeks, the district administrators created a district-run Montessori option. "When push comes to shove, there are ways in which it can be accomplished," Hunter says.
Several weeks ago, Minnesota passed new legislation that allows applicants whose proposals are denied by a local board to appeal the decision to the state board of education.
"That may force local school boards to respond a little differently than they did before," Hunter says.
It's too early to determine the effect of charter schools on the public-school system in Minnesota, but the debate is focusing attention on parents' concerns and interests.
"It's caused a policy debate that's way out of proportion at this point to the number of kids and the number of schools involved," Kolderie says. "People clearly feel there is something much bigger at stake."