SCHOOL vouchers, privatization, and decentralization are among the latest ''fixes'' in American education. But increasingly, it is the charter-school movement that has captured the interest and imagination of education reformers across the nation.
In the past five years, 20 states have passed charter-school laws, spawning more than 230 grass-roots education experiments.
About a dozen more states are planning to introduce charter bills during this legislative session.
''I expect 25 states to have charter laws by the end of this year,'' says Alex Medler, a policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States in Denver. ''Legislatures are adopting it at an unprecedented rate.''
These independent public schools are one of the most rapidly expanding innovations in education today. Teachers and parents are seizing the opportunity to start new schools that serve the particular needs of their students and operate outside the usual constraints placed on public schools.
Many charter schools have waiting lists for students, and despite the typically lower pay, teachers flood the new schools with applications.
''Instead of defining a public school as a school run by the government, it becomes a school that serves the public, is financed by the public, and is accountable to the public,'' says Chester Finn, a fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington. ''But, in fact, it can be run by almost anybody.''
Decisions made at school level
Under charter-school contracts, groups that want to start new schools are released from many of the rules and regulations that apply to other public schools. In exchange, the charter school is accountable for certain results. If it fails to meet the requirements of the charter, it can be revoked and the school closed.
Depending on the restraints of each state's law, various groups have the right to start a charter school. In some cases, the schools are founded by teachers, parents, corporations, or universities.
In Arizona, a local Boys and Girls Club operates a middle school focused on the arts. In Michigan, charter schools are sponsored by universities. And an Arizona school for dropouts is operated in collaboration with the state correctional department.
Although charter schools are still relatively small in number, this new type of school is exerting some real pressure on the traditional public-school system, according to early studies.
Critics charge that such autonomous schools could jeopardize the stability of the American education system. ''There are some very realistic concerns,'' Mr. Medler says. ''It's just whether or not you think it's worth the benefits.''
In the early debates about charter laws, opponents argued that these schools would end up siphoning off the best students and leave disadvantaged kids unserved. But recent studies by the Hudson Institute and the Education Commission of the States indicate that has not been the case so far.
For the most part, charter schools are enrolling a larger percentage of minority students than are neighboring public schools. In the six states with the most charter schools, minority students make up 40 percent of overall enrollment but only 31 percent of the regular school population, says the Hudson Institute report.
Many of the charter schools being approved serve special-needs students. Others have a particular emphasis, such as arts or sciences.
In Minnesota, Metro Deaf Charter School provides a program for deaf students while City Academy serves dropouts. Guajome Park Academy in San Diego focuses on community service, and Livingston Academy in Michigan offers a school-to-work manufacturing program.
In California, an ''on-line'' school educates about 200 middle- and high-school students by computer. And a Montessori school in Arizona serves mostly low-income Hispanic children.
''Charter schools are certainly not becoming white enclaves as some people predicted,'' says Louann Bierlein, an expert on charter schools at the Louisiana Education Policy Research Center.
Although many local school boards and teachers' unions remain opposed to charter schools, there is evidence that the threat of competition within the public-school system is causing some positive changes. ''In districts where charter schools are a viable option, you're seeing more focus schools, alternative schools, and magnet schools,'' Medler says. In some cases, parental requests for special schools that were repeatedly denied in the past are being honored once the possibility of creating a charter school exists.
''Local school districts are definitely doing things that they hadn't before because they now have a charter school at their back door,'' Ms. Bierlein says.
Some charter-school opponents have shifted their focus away from trying to kill all charter legislation. The new strategy is to make incoming laws as restrictive as possible.
Only six states - Minnesota, California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Arizona - have what Bierlein classifies as ''strong'' charter laws. ''These six key states have almost 90 percent of the operating charter schools,'' she says.
The passage of laws that limit the number of charter schools and restrict autonomy is a serious concern, Mr. Finn says. ''We could end up with 50 states that claim to have charter legislation and only a dozen or 15 states that have true charter schools,'' he says.
One of the most serious obstacles to developing these schools is the lack of start-up funds. Several states are working to address that problem, however.
In Colorado, the state treasurer is considering lending state investment funds to charter schools. Once the schools are established, the loans would be repaid with interest. In Arizona, an effort is under way to line up private lenders who would make capital-expenditure loans to groups of charter schools.
Meanwhile, the future for the charter-school movement is uncertain. ''The ultimate question is whether the kids learn more, and we don't know the answer to that yet,'' Finn says.