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The first charter school law in the nation was approved in Minnesota in 1991 and the first charter school opened in St. Paul, Minn., in September 1992.

Today, at last count, there are 1,674 charter schools up and running in 34 states with a total student body of some 300,000. New York joined the move to sanction charter schools when Gov. George Pataki signed a law in December 1998 that empowers the State University of New York and the Board of Regents to approve the establishment of such schools.

Each state has its own regulations governing the establishment of charters, but the rationale for all is basically the same -- to satisfy those who have not been happy with the existing public school systems.

Charter schools offer a choice to families who are unhappy with the public school their child attends but can't afford to move to another school district or pay private or parochial school tuition. Charters cannot charge tuition.

Charter schools in New York State are part of the public school system, financed with taxpayer dollars. They do, however, have greater flexibility in how they operate because they are exempt from most education laws, rules and regulations that govern regular public schools. As a result, they have less bureaucracy to contend with while remaining fully accountable to public oversight.

The New York State law permits the creation of up to 100 new charter schools. In addition, existing public schools may be converted to charter schools under specified regulations.

In the fall of 1999, only four charter schools were operating in the state. Two were new charter institutions sponsored by the SUNY board of trustees and two others were public school conversions sponsored by the chancellor of the New York City schools.

Dozens of other charter applications currently are pending in the state, with 12 in Western New York seeking approval. Three of the 12 have been successful in gaining preliminary approval and are likely to begin operating in September.

Each charter school operates under a contract with an educational or government entity, which then has fiscal and academic oversight. Charter institutions can differ from local public schools in terms of work rules, salary ranges and other areas of operation.

A key distinction between a charter and a regular public school is in faculty makeup. Charters can hire qualified individuals to teach even if they do not possess formal state certification.

This fundamental difference in faculty enables a charter school to hire highly qualified business people and professionals who cannot teach in public schools because they are not certified.

All charter students must take Regents exams and other standardized state tests. Schools failing to meet predetermined goals face the likelihood of losing their charters to operate. Thirty-two already have been closed. Underachieving traditional public schools rarely are closed.

A fairly recent trend in education has been the establishment of denominational schools. It is important to note that the New York State charter law is very definitive in this area, stating: "A charter shall not be issued to any school that would be wholly or in part under the control or direction of any religious denomination or in which any denominational tenet or doctrine would be taught."

Throughout the nation, there have been strong indicators that the establishment of charter schools has put pressure on traditional school systems to become more accountable, to make reforms that in the past would not be made. Public schools have been very slow in changing the way they do business.

As a dedicated supporter of public education, I embarked on my review of charter schools with negative feelings, fearful that they would weaken the traditional American system of public education.

But now, having reviewed hundreds of pro and con commentaries, I lean toward support for charter schools. If nothing else, the reports of the pressures they have put on traditional public schools to bring about change is a positive that can only lead to the strengthening of public education.

I also am impressed by the ability of the charters to recruit top-notch faculties and to have the flexibility needed to get the job done by adding hours to the school day and days to the school calendar.

One of my principal concerns early on was that religious groups would launch charter schools, endangering the basic American tenet that public schools should not be religiously oriented. Fortunately, the State Legislature made sure that could not occur.

Charter schools can be a positive educational development if carefully monitored, with particular attention to the goals and achievements of the sponsors. They must prove that their students have acquired the educational skills specified in the initial contract of the charter.

MURRAY B. LIGHT is the former editor of The Buffalo News.
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