Lawmakers' action could affect local charter school dilemma

Posted: Tuesday, January 04, 2000

A bill pending in the Legislature could relieve the Juneau School Board from making a tough choice between two proposed charter schools.

House Bill 191 would lift the limit on the number of charter schools allowed in the state and allow them to operate for longer periods of time.

``There are schools who are not able to organize because we're up against the limits,'' Dyson said. ``If we don't get this bill through, we'll have, I think, three or four charter schools that won't be able to start.''

The school board hasn't taken a position yet on House Bill 191, which was introduced last session by Republican state Rep. Fred Dyson of Eagle River.

The bill made it through the House Health, Education and Social Services Committee, which Dyson co-chairs, and is pending in the House Finance Committee.

State law allows parents, teachers or other community groups to apply to use public funds to start charter schools. These schools are exempt from some of the curriculum and other requirements that apply to other district schools.

The law currently allows 30 charter school statewide, and only two of those can be in Juneau.

The Juneau School Board three years ago approved the first of those - the Juneau Community Charter School, which serves 60 students in grades kindergarten through six.

Two groups of citizens have applied for the remaining charter school opening in Juneau. One of those groups proposes a school with an Alaska Native orientation and the other proposes a Montessori program.

Dyson's bill almost certainly won't make it through the Legislature in time to affect the school board's decision this year.

The board is scheduled to question the applicants at its meeting at 6 p.m. today in the school district administrative building. A final decision on whether to grant one of the applications is expected at the Jan. 18 meeting.

School Board President Stan Ridgeway said he wasn't familiar with the bill and the board hasn't taken a position on it.

Lifting the cap might help, he said. One thing the school board is grappling with now is whether it wants to charter another school serving elementary students - which both proposals before the board would do - when the district is allowed just two schools.

Approving another elementary school would leave no room for a charter school serving middle or high school students, he said.

Dyson's bill would also allow charter schools to sign contracts with local school boards to operate for 10 years, instead of the current limit of five. The longer-term contract would allow schools to justify making improvements in the buildings they lease, Dyson said.

His bill would also put tougher accounting requirements on school districts and make clearer what types of funding the charter schools are supposed to receive.

State Department of Education spokesman Harry Gamble said the department and the State Board of Education support the basic concept of Dyson's bill - lifting the cap on the number of schools.

``They want school districts to have a broader authority to experiment with more charter schools,'' Gamble said.

The current version of the bill puts no limits on the number of schools that can operate, but Dyson plans to propose changes to the bill after the Legislature reconvenes next week. He would increase the statewide cap by only about 50 percent.

He also plans to change sections of the bill that would have cost the state significantly more money. The original bill had proposed changing the state school funding formula in a way that would have increased spending on charter schools by classifying them as separate schools, rather than as part of an existing school. Dyson said he will remove that provision to reduce the cost of the bill.

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