School districts have watched from the sidelines as disgruntled parents launched charter schools with taxpayer money, claiming they could do a better job educating children than standard public schools do.
Now, though, some districts are striving to become players in the powerful charter-school movement, figuring that if they can't beat it, at least they can join it.
From Boston to San Diego, school districts are opening experimental charters that look wildly different from the traditional schools they operate just down the street. In Denver, the district's Pioneer Charter School is in its first month of operation as a private-school-look-alike in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods.
The Pioneer experiment is, in effect, a bold attempt to get better academic results for the same cost. If it succeeds, district officials say they will replicate Pioneer's approach: school uniforms, more school days, fewer students per class, and a pay structure for teachers that riles the union.
Denver's district-run charter is "rare but not unprecedented," says Paul Hill, who directs the University of Washington's Program on Reinventing Public Education. Boston, San Diego, Portland, Ore., and a few smaller cities have opened carefully crafted charters, which may be more likely to succeed than what he calls "coffee klatsch" charters (those organized by unhappy parents who have no educational philosophy beyond hating the neighborhood school).
BUT the innovations at Pioneer have generated some controversy, primarily over the teaching staff. The school employs a handful of "master teachers" who make thousands of dollars more than their colleagues at other Denver public schools. But all other teachers at Pioneer are called "instructors," and they make thousands less than their counterparts.
Pioneer has pay-scale flexibility because it is outside the union structure. Master teachers are in key positions such as first-grade reading, while services such as gym and psychological counseling are contracted at cheaper rates to private bidders.
Those savings buy time, Denver school officials say. Pioneer students will be in class 195 days compared with the district's 175, and the school's doors are open from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. for no extra fees. The student-instructor ratio is about 12 to 1, compared with 20 to 1 at other Denver schools. The teachers came from elsewhere in the Denver public school system and from a cooperative arrangement with the University of Denver, which provides student teachers.
The teachers union offers a skeptical view of Pioneer. Use of student teachers and other "instructors" who are not fully licensed means Pioneer "does not deliver" qualified educators, says local union president Andrea Giunta.
Still, the union has kept a low profile. District officials and parent groups say the union could have used union grievances or the courts to tie up Pioneer for years, but chose not to do so. "We're waiting to see how it develops," Ms. Giunta says. "We want to see some solid facts as to how much more productive this experiment is."
The district, too, is eager to know whether Pioneer's approach works - for the same cost as a traditional school. The district itemizes every dollar in the Pioneer budget in the hope of proving to parents, the union, and the city's school board that money is no barrier to expanding the concept.
"If you accept that you have a limited pot of money for public education..., then the question is, what can you do with that pot that is different?" says district spokesman Mark Stevens.
School officials clearly see Pioneer as their best hope for reforming the system and convincing middle-class parents that public schools can serve their children well. Denver Superintendent Ira Moskowitz has called the school a "seminal event" and a turning point for the district's 66,500 students.
So far, the children's advocacy group that pushed hardest to bring the charter concept to Colorado is cheering over Pioneer's opening earlier this month. "We have been waiting long and hard for something like Pioneer to come along," says Barbara O'Brien, president of the Colorado Children's Campaign. "It's a model."
Charters began a few years ago when motivated parents began to ask local school boards for taxpayer money to set up their own schools. Their contracts gave them the right to explore new educational methods using the same per-pupil tax money spent by the local public district. So far more than 500 charter schools have opened in 25 states.
Judging the success of Pioneer will be a challenge and may begin a new round of arguments among educators. Like any private or magnet school, the 320 students at Pioneer have parents who were motivated enough not to settle for the default neighborhood school. That automatically gives the students an advantage in test comparisons.
"You will never answer that self-selection problem all the way," says Mr. Hill, who has studied the charter movement nationwide.
But his own studies convince him that most charter schools are more integrated racially and economically than most public schools in the same district, making them a good benchmark for comparison to other urban schools.
In fact, Pioneer's inaugural student body closely reflects the neighborhood, says Mr. Stevens, the district spokesman. "If it works," he says, "we will replicate it."