District considers charters

Posted: Sunday, January 18, 2004

Two groups of educators and parents on the Kenai Peninsula are exploring the idea of new charter schools to open next fall in the Kenai-Soldotna area.

Charters are being developed for an academic-only high school based out of Skyview High School and an arts-and-sciences-based elementary school at Sears Elementary School.

The potential charters are drawing support from several parents and educators on the peninsula. However, the concept of charter schools in general remains a controversial issue throughout much of the country.

Assistant Superintendent Gary Whiteley, who serves as the district's liaison to area charter schools, admitted there can be conflicts between traditional public schools and charter schools, due both the curriculum and funding differences.

"People have very strong opinions," he said. "We've gotten heavily criticized for having charter schools."

However, he said, state statute allows charter schools, and they are a reality with which districts have to deal.

In fact, state law has changed in recent years to open the door to more charter schools.

Prior to 2001, the state allowed the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development to approve 30 charters at a time, with a limit on charter schools in specific zones. The Kenai Peninsula, for example, was allowed only three.

In 2001, however, law changed, and the state now allows a total of 60 charter schools with no geographical limit. At present, there are 19 charter schools in the state, including three on the Kenai Peninsula: Aurora Borealis in Kenai, Soldotna Montessori and Fireweed Academy in Homer.

While charter schools may be controversial in some places, the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District's approach has been to embrace the schools as a way of offering families more choices in education, Whiteley said.

"Around the state, a lot of school districts and charter schools have tenuous relationships," he said. "We have chosen to try to work things through."

One of the apparent conflicts between traditional and charter schools is funding.

On the peninsula, for example, district officials and school board members have spent the last year discussing options for consolidating existing schools due in part to declining enrollment and tight budgets.

The idea of simultaneously opening new charter schools seems a contradiction.

"Whenever two things happen simultaneously, there's an apparent contradiction," Whiteley said. "But then, public schools are asked to do so many things, there are a lot of apparent contradictions."

He explained, however, that charter schools don't necessarily take away from existing public schools. Rather, the complex funding mechanism can be either a drain or a boon for a district, depending on the students who enroll.

Charter schools are public schools and are funded by the state through the normal funding formula. Charter schools with more than 150 students are funded as separate schools in a district with full per-pupil funding under the state formula. Those with less than 150 students have their enrollment totals added to the enrollment of the largest school in the district for funding purposes.

The money received for charter school students, however, is not used in quite the same way as other public school money. Charter school funds must be set aside in a separate fund for the school's academic policy committee to use as it sees fit.

That freedom of spending can irritate some noncharter school parents, who have little say in how the district uses general operating funds. And, if all charter school students are from within the school district, it may mean less spending flexibility for the district as a whole.

But, Whiteley said, more often than not, charter school students don't all come from existing schools within the district.

Often, the educational choice provided by charter schools attracts home-school and private-school students back to the district, actually adding to the district's enrollment and income, he said.

In addition, charter schools are eligible for extra funding through the state and federal governments. The U.S. Department of Education offers Alaska about $6.5 million in charter school grants, and an individual charter school can garner about $350,000 of that over a two-year period for start-up costs, Whiteley said.

Most importantly, though, charter schools offer area parents educational choices, which many are looking for these days.

Parents who aren't satisfied with the traditional public education system often choose to home-school students or enroll them in private schools. Charter schools can provide options for families to keep their children in the free, public school system while exercising their own beliefs about what form of education is best for the children.

"Our experience has been thus far that charter schools have indeed attracted kids back to the system," Whiteley said.

Skyview principal John Pothast and Sears principal Mick Wykis, who are helping to organize efforts to develop charters for the proposed new schools, echoed the thought.

"We live in an advent of choice," Pothast said. "It's indicative of the fact that parents do have choices and are willing to go elsewhere if they can't get what they want."

"This could provide parents and students an option we don't think exists in this fashion," Wykis agreed.

Both charters are expected to be finished and presented to the KPBSD school board at its Feb. 2 meeting. The school board has the power to turn down a charter. However, if the charters are approved, they will go to the state board of education in March or June. Both are proposed to open next fall.

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