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Minnesota's new twist on education: public schools run by parents, teachers

After more than a year of debate, Minnesota this fall opened the first of a new kind of school.

It's a public school. But it's run by a panel of parents and teachers, not by a school district.

It's eligible to receive tax dollars. But it's not subject to most of the rules that cover public schools.

School administrators and teachers are skeptical of such "charter schools," warning they drain the limited resources of existing public schools. But supporters say they represent the kind of fresh start education needs.

"In some ways it's new and different and puzzles people, but in some ways it's very simple," said Ted Kolderie, a St. Paul consultant on school reform. "It's just the idea that it's okay for somebody else to offer public education."

Charter schools represent another alternative in the national debate over school choice, which mostly has focused on the Bush administration-backed plan _ opposed by public school educators _ to give parents vouchers to send their children to private schools.

Under the Minnesota program, charter schools receive the same amount of tax dollars as traditional public schools; may enroll students from any district; and are free to develop their own curriculum. Minnesota already lets children attend the public school of their choice.

The state Board of Education has approved charter school status for four schools over the past 18 months; only one _ City Academy in St. Paul _ is up and running.

City Academy, which has classes year-round, was set up in a community center for students who had been kicked out of traditional schools but still wanted a high school diploma.

But charter schools aren't necessarily for troubled kids. The three other schools that have won charter school status are a traditional high school, a school for the deaf and a private Montessori school seeking to go public.

To graduate, students must pass the same state competence tests as students in traditional public schools, but aren't required to take the same courses. For instance, students may learn basic mathematics through such methods as measuring boards to build houses.

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