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Charter Schools Face Tough Test: Accountability

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Some work out of trailers on shoestring budgets. Others pass around blueprints for multimillion-dollar building projects.

Despite such differences, all the charter-school activists meeting for their first national conference last week insisted that they were part of the most important educational reform of the 1990s.

But a final report card is not yet in on the charter experiment, and some activists worry that its successes - and failures - could prompt a backlash.

"Phoenix public schools are losing about $5,000 for every student that chooses to come to my school. It's beginning to hurt, and I'm afraid that there's a backlash coming," says Patty Shaw, director of the Phoenix-based Intelli-School, a charter school for at-risk teens.

Charter schools are publicly funded, and many are exempt from regulations governing other public schools, including collective-bargaining agreements with unions. They aim to innovate and offer parents a choice.

"We are a teacher's license to dream," says Irene Sumida, director of the Fenton Avenue Charter School in Lake View Terrace, Calif. With an annual budget of $7.4 million and a Power Mac on every fifth-grader's desk, Fenton is a textbook case for what new ideas and resources can do in tough neighborhoods.

"Eighty percent of our students are Hispanic, 15 percent are African-American, and 60 percent have limited English proficiency. We have a 99 percent attendance rate, and last May we were named one of California's distinguished schools," she adds. Services include literacy training for parents, parenting courses for students, and, when needed, a free ride to court.

"For far too long this nation has tolerated giving young people, especially in our large cities, a third-class education. This is why ... we are so encouraged by the work you do," Education Secretary Richard Riley told some 800 activists in Washington on Nov. 4.

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