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AN EXPERIMENT IN EDUCATION . . .

Western New York's first experience with the concept of charter schools will start this September. If organizers can work through a long list of details in a short period of time, doors will open to a different kind of education.

The new schools are more than welcome. Despite criticism from established school boards fearful of losing state operating aid, they are not an attack on public education. Instead, they represent an experiment in strengthening it.

Charter schools are public schools that don't answer to a central school district. Like district schools, they adhere to the public-school principle of a free education available to all -- but they pick their own styles of teaching and discipline, set their own schedules (often with extended hours or school years) and control their own teacher hiring.

Freed from centralized policies and control, they can become schools with personalities. Some focus on back-to-basics while others integrate instruction with the arts or technology. Some provide learn-at-your-own-pace environments and some insist on uniforms or strict codes of behavior. Many court, and some mandate, parent involvement in school policy and activities.

Charter schools offer parents an expanded choice of schools for their children. Studies in other states show that the competition has triggered improvements in the surrounding public schools. The experiment seems to be working.

Despite that, opponents fret that the diversion of state per-pupil operating aid from public to charter schools will cut district revenues while expenses remain fairly constant. Teacher unions worry that charters with fewer than 250 pupils won't have to match district teaching contracts, and administrators are concerned that charters will "cherry pick" the best students with the most involved parents.

In truth, charters tend to be city-based facilities that serve high percentages of underprivileged and minority students, and some specifically target "at-risk" children. And the autonomy, flexibility and freedom from many state regulations enjoyed by charters is designed to encourage the kind of schedule and style experimentation that can shift the focus of education away from the web of contracts and policies and back to teaching the children.

There are flaws in the New York system. There is an unnecessary and purely political division of chartering power between the State Board of Regents and a state university system board of trustees appointed by the pro-charter governor. The state doesn't need two charter systems under the same law, especially if the agencies evolve different policies. The split already has resulted in a wave of 90 applications to the trustees, seen as more likely to favor applications, and only a few to the Regents.

Chartering agencies, though, can limit divisiveness through a uniform approach to applications for new schools. Schools affect children's lives. Wisely, both agencies are taking hard looks at the backgrounds and qualifications of those organizing these schools as part of a process that includes a detailed, extensive and demanding application.

Government can encourage charters by lowering the financial barriers, as Gov. George E. Pataki proposes with his budgetary push for a $6 million charter school stimulus fund. But the governor, and lawmakers, should resist premature calls by charter school proponents to make the application process easier.

Only two proposed Buffalo schools have been approved so far, both by university system trustees. This remains a small-scale experiment, one that should provide a glimpse of the promises and the pitfalls without a major impact on the city school system. It's an experiment well worth trying.

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