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The charter-school plan

June 03, 1997

Two years ago, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge tried unsuccessfully to get lawmakers to fund a tuition-voucher program to give parents a choice in where they send their children to school. Now lawmakers are trying to rev up the idea of school choice again, by adding more flavors to the public-school menu.

This time around, the blue-plate special is something called charter schools, which are are publicly-funded schools that run under a charter that frees them from many state regulations.

For example, a charter school set up to specialize in a math and science curriculum wouldn't have to take every student. Instead, students could be required to make a certain score on a specialized entrance test.

Now we have supported the idea of specialized academic schools in the past, including the math-science high school promoted by former Maryland Gov. William D. Schaefer. Too often in a regular public-school setting, those students who try to excel academically are not respected, or worse, ridiculed by their peers.

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The problem with charter schools that are not devoted to academics (and perhaps even some of those that are) is that they drain the better students away from regular public schools. Not only does this create a funding problem - no state compensation will be made for enrollment losses - but it also creates a student group insulated from the larger society. How will the best and brightest help less-fortunate classmates - with tutoring and the like - if they've been siphoned off to other schools?

For that reason we're glad that legislation to allow charter schools limits their number to 67 this year. We'd favor holding that number steady for five years, until some conclusions can be made about charter schools' effectiveness.

We'd also like to limit their number because if one or more of them comes up with innovative teaching methods, those methods ought to become part of the way things are done in other public schools. After all, what's the use of coming up with a good idea if you can't share it with everyone else?

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