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Proposed bill could create charter schools

BY NORA HEATON | FEBRUARY 22, 2010 7:30 AM

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School boards looking to chart a new course may have more options.

If passed, a proposed state bill would create a state-sanctioned board to help create charter schools, public institutions with a niche educational focus in curriculum and extracurricular offerings.

The bill, introduced in the House of Representatives on Feb. 12, would grant more freedom for new charter schools.

Charter schools, though public, are exempt from certain state restrictions once they are approved. They are meant to offer students and school districts a novel and concentrated way to educate in their niche — for instance, a charter school in the performing arts would structure academics and activities around students’ artistic pursuits.

Mostly, charter schools are innovative, said Del Hoover, a deputy administrator of the Iowa Department of Education.

“If they’re really living up to their obligation of innovation, they’re providing some motivation that might not have been present before,” he said.

At present, local school boards in Iowa can apply to create a charter program in an existing public school or convert that school to charter status, according to the Education Commission of the States.

No charter schools or programs exist in Iowa City, but 10 are spread across Iowa.

Current law does not permit start-up charter schools in Iowa. But under the proposed bill, accredited public and private postsecondary institutions, cities, and governing boards of nonprofit or charitable organizations could apply to the state board to authorize an entirely new charter school.

Iowa Department of Education spokeswoman Elaine Watkins-Miller said Iowans already enjoy considerable educational freedom, which is a main goal of charter schools.

Iowa’s open enrollment policy, which allows students to switch from their neighborhood school to another school in or outside their district, is a luxury that not all states have.

The Education Commission of States reports that 10 states, including Nebraska, do not have any existing legislation for charter schools.

Amid the Iowa City School District’s redistricting considerations, the idea of magnet programs — a similar idea to charter schools — has floated through discussion. Magnet schools are still more bound to state education regulations than charter schools, Watkins-Miller said.

Rene Rocha, a UI assistant professor of political science, said the charter and magnet programs might be a voluntary way to create a socioeconomic balance, if they are located in lesser area schools.

“Presumably, those programs would attract high-achieving students who would come from high economic backgrounds,” said Rocha, who specializes in education policy and race relations.

But this would be a long and complicated process, Watkins-Miller said, and it may not be the best answer.

“A charter school may or may not serve that purpose based on the purpose of the redistricting,” she said. “We have to wait and see where [the bill] goes.”


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