Originally created 03/03/98

House offers support for charter schools



ATLANTA -- Parents, teachers, private businesses and nonprofit organizations could form experimental taxpayer-funded charter schools under legislation that easily passed Monday in Georgia's House.

The expansion of charter schools has split the state's leading education organizations for more than a year, but the bill passed the House 156-4.

A similar measure was approved by the Senate last year but stalled in the House, in part because some education groups feared tax money would be used to pay for private schools.

The legislation approved Monday, sponsored by state Rep. Kathy Ashe, R-Atlanta, makes it clear that local boards of education would have to approve the operating rules -- or charters -- and that the campuses would be public schools.

"They (the charters) are not a magic bullet, but they are a magic opportunity for public schools to do some things that need to be done," Ms. Ashe told colleagues before the vote.

"This will allow us to focus on a specific group of students with specific needs," said House Education Chairman DuBose Porter, D-Dublin.

Georgia's charter school law, passed in 1993, is considered one of the most restrictive in the nation because only existing public schools can apply. Charter school advocates say 21 public schools, mostly in the Atlanta area, have been approved in recent years.

However, the charter-school movement has been growing rapidly across the country, with more than 700 formed since the early 1990s.

Currently, 29 states have charter school laws, and President Clinton has promoted the idea, which essentially allows the campuses to operate free from many state and local regulations.

Charter schools receive public money and are designed to offer innovative alternatives to traditional schools.

Ms. Ashe's bill will open up the system to parents, teachers and organizations who want to form charter schools for specific purposes, such as to have small classes or to emphasize reading.

For instance, lawmakers say inner-city Atlanta residents have been eager to form charter schools to work on specific problem areas.