House OKs increase in charter schools

Legislation lifts Juneau limits, but proposed schools still face problems

Posted: Thursday, March 02, 2000

More charter schools could start up in Alaska under a bill that passed the state House on Wednesday.

The measure increases the number of charter schools allowed to operate in the state from 30 to 60 and lets them operate under 10-year contracts, instead of five-year contracts.

Juneau's two-school limit would be lifted under the bill. But local school officials said that doesn't necessarily mean there will be more charter schools in Juneau.

``They haven't increased funding and the reality is charter students bring in less funding to the district,'' said Assistant Schools Superintendent Drew Alexander, ``so that serves as a deterrent to increase charter schools.''

It's up to the local school board to decide whether to allow a charter school in their community.

Charter schools are alternative programs proposed by parents, teachers or other community members. They contract with their local school district and receive funding from the district. Juneau has just one now, the arts-based Juneau Community Charter School, for elementary grades.

Alexander said that school is working well, but the state funding formula for education has changed since the first charter school started.

The way the formula works now, the district receives less money for elementary school charter students than for those in the regular schools, Alexander said. The Juneau School Board turned down two additional charter school applications this year.

Because of the financial issue, backers of two proposed charters in Juneau - a Native studies school and a Montessori school - said they don't think the bill will help much.

However, Montessori teacher Chris Trostel said it does at least remove one possible barrier, the two-school cap for Juneau. ``They don't have to save it (the remaining charter) for a secondary school, they don't have to save it for a different kind of school.''

Rep. Fred Dyson, the primary sponsor of the bill, originally pro

posed changing the state funding formula to eliminate the financial disincentive. But the Eagle River Republican said he dropped that idea because the additional cost to the state would have killed the bill.

``What you have before you is not the best (bill), but the best we could do at this point, particularly given the fiscal constraints,'' Dyson said on the House floor Wednesday.

Other elements of the bill may provide financial help to some charter schools, he said. The bill clarifies that districts are required to give charters their share of any local and federal money, as well as state funding that comes to the district. They must also provide more itemized accounting of the money they hold back for services, such as special education, that the district provides the school.

Alexander said Juneau already does that, so it won't place a new burden on the district.

Dyson said he has no evidence that districts aren't giving charters their fair share of the money their students generate now, but the bill will make that certain.

The bill would also allow the schools to meet in buildings that meet health and safety standards for public buildings, but not the more rigorous standards for public school building standards.

Some opponents of the measure said while parts of the bill are good, the provisions that call for itemized accounting and allow charter schools to meet in buildings that don't meet public school standards may actually make it harder for charter schools to start.

The bill passed 34-5 and now goes to the Senate. Juneau Republican Rep. Bill Hudson was among those voting in favor of the measure. Juneau's other representative, Democrat Beth Kerttula, was absent.

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