Charter school advocates speak out

2009-08-16T23:00:00Z Charter school advocates speak outBy JOAN BARRON Star-Tribune Capital Bureau The Billings Gazette

CHEYENNE - Charter school advocates claim it is time to rewrite the state laws governing such schools.

"We simply need to replace our old statutes with comprehensive, next-generation charter law," Rep. Sue Wallis, R-Gillette, said in a media release.

"We continue to find more and more loopholes written into our current law that weaken the effectiveness of our charter schools to operate as independent schools," added Wallis, who is chairwoman of the Wyoming Association of Public Charter Schools.

Wallis noted that the state Board of Education voted recently to deny a waiver by Fort Washakie High School, a virtual charter high school, which would have allowed the school to hire teachers on a year-to-year basis.

Statutes 'poorly written'

"This denial was based on Wyoming's poorly written charter statutes, which do not give the state board authority over teacher tenure waivers as they pertain to public charter schools," Wallis said.

Sen. Phil Nicholas, R-Laramie, said that he and former Rep. Jeff Wasserburger of Gillette worked for a week on the 2001 law when both were in the state House of Representatives.

They created a law that has a large element of local control by the school districts and limited review by the state Board of Education, Nicholas said Friday.

The law was created so the districts can decide if the charter schools have enough support and funding and whether the school is fair to other students, Nicholas added.

The state has an interest in trying to create charter schools that offer flexibility and originality and at the same time be held responsible for supporting the entire K-12 public school system, he said.

When 100 students or so leave a traditional school for a charter school, the district loses state money for those students.

Since those students come from different grades in the system, the district must continue to maintain the same number of teachers in the classrooms.

"The teachers want to make sure the charter schools don't cherry pick the best students," Nicholas said.

They also want to be sure all the teachers in the charter schools are certified.

Looking for resolve

The proper level of state support for the charter schools is still to be resolved, Nicholas said.

Wallis said charter schools have been championed as part of the solution to the nation's educational crisis by both ends of the political spectrum.

"Here in Wyoming," Wallis said, "we spend more money per student than practically anywhere else on the planet, and yet our student achievement compared with the rest of the country, and the world, is pathetically mediocre and has shown no real improvement."

Wallis recently attended the National Conference of State Legislatures, where the keynote speaker was Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

"His entire address was about the promise of public charter schools," Wallis said. "His message to legislators was all about the need to allow teachers and parents to use public dollars and control the curriculum and educational strategies best suited for their particular situation, without outside interference, and what a tremendous difference that has made in student achievement across the country."

A former state legislator, Becket Hinckley of Cheyenne, who is co-chairman of the charter schools association, said the schools are being forced into long and costly legal battles.

On the other side of these disputes is the local school district, spending taxpayer dollars to fight charter schools, Hinckley said in a release.

The remedy is a comprehensive state law that could incorporate the statutes of other states more experienced in dealing with charter schools, he said.

Contact capital bureau reporter Joan Barron at 307-632-1244 or joan.barron@trib.com

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