LOCATED in a rented church on the outskirts of a mid-western university town, the 75-pupil Ann Arbor Learning Community could be a model for the future of education in the United States and - if the Conservatives get their way - for Britain too.
The Ann Arbor Learning Community is a charter school, part of an educational movement that began less than a decade ago but which now encompasses about 1,700 schools across America.
The school was started by two committed visionaries and a group of parents who, unhappy with mainstream public schools, decided to use charter-school legislation to open their own. They started a school which offers students "an educational adventure" which focuses on outdoor science and environmental education as well as basic studies.
The charter school concept is simple: encourage communities to open their own schools, fund them according to the number of pupils, and let them do their own thing, subject to meeting targets set out in a contract.
Charter schools are defined by their bottom-up, parent-friendly design, not by any particular philosophy of education, and they offer whatever the market will bear.
The Ann Arbor Learning Community, like all charter schools, is open to children of all abilities, charges no fees andis independent of all education authorities. This allows it to offer a more progressive, child-centred education than mainstream schools.
Charter schools are the biggest boom area in American school education, run by individuals or groups, such as parents, teachers, community organisations or private companies. They operate under a contract, or "charter", issued by sponsors which are typically local or state boards of education or universities.
Like Britain's grant-maintained (now foundation) schools, they are part of the taxpayer-funded school system but are free from its bureaucracy. Unlike GM schools, they operate under a three to five-year contract that is renewed only if schools meet certain conditions. Another significant difference is that any group or organisation can run a charter school. Sometimes they are private companies, either operating as management companies in return for a fee or as full-blown businesses seeking a profit.
The Tories in Britain have based their idea for "free schools" on the charter-school model. In the US, charter schools are part of the "school choice" movement, which has charter schools at the moderate end of the free-market spectrum and school vouchers at the other.
Supporters of charter schools believe they combine the best of the public and private sectors.
The first charter-school legislation was enacted in Minnesota in 1991. Since then both President Clinton and the Republican-dominated Congress have supported charter-school policies.
Charter laws vary from state to state and the schools themselves vary enormously in size, aims and character - partly a reaction against the public school "one-size-fits-all" approach. Many charter schools are very small and a good proportion are housed in buildings that were not intended for school use.
The Ann Arbor Learning Community is fairly typical. It is run on a charter issued by Eastern Michigan University and is deliberately small-scale, informal and geared to the needs of individual pupils.
One of its founders, Marty Kope, says the vision developed from his own experiences of trying to help youngsters who were leaving Detroit schools with inadequate vocational and life skills. The philosophy of his school is that "the child comes first and we organise the school around the student in order to meet their demands, especially those with special needs".
Delivering the vision has been difficult. Like most states, Michigan does not provide any start-up money for charter schools, hence the need for Ann Arbor Learning Community to rent the local Korean Bible Church building rather than buying its own building.
The school's income is around $6,000 (pound;3,600) per pupil, based on the average per-pupil funding for the state. But in practice, this is less than most public schools receive in total when their other funding sources are taken into account.
The lack of start-up money is a serious obstacle. A study of charter schools in Michigan, carried out by Michigan State University, found the funding arrangements tended to limit what charter schools could do. The study cleared charter schools of the charge of "creaming off" the more able students but found that they tended to enrol students who were cheaper to educate, such as primary-age pupils, while generally shunning older secondary school pupils and children with special needs. As one of the lead researchers, Professor Gary Sykes puts it, there is "a kind of selection going on, but it's on the basis of cost, not on academic ability".
Fewer than 3 per cent of Michigan's children are in charter schools but the Michigan State University research suggests the impact on some under performing school districts could cause them to implode. As charter schools cream off the "cheaper" children, the districts are left with the rest.
This raises the fundamental issue of the long-term purpose of charter schools. In a study for the Brookings Institute, Bryan Hassel saw three possible goals. The first, and simplest, is that the mere threat of parents opening charter schools might be a stimulus for change in mainstream schools.
A second theory is that charter schools will act as laboratories for new ideas becoming complementary to mainstream schools. The third, and most revolutionary, view of charter schools is that they should eventually replace regular schools altogether.
Each of these theories has its supporters. Some school authorities have adapted in response to the stimulus of charter schools opening in their areas. In Boston, for example, the school board created "pilot schools" which are free of their former constraints yet remain within the local authority system.
There is also evidence to support charter schools as the "R amp; D departments" of public school education. A study of charter schools in three states (Michigan, Massachusetts, and Colorado) found that over a third were following "alternative" models and another 9 per cent were adopting "culture-centric" approaches, focusing particularly on the needs of African-American students.
The final theory - that charters will replace mainstream schools - still looks a remote possibility, given that there are 88,000 schools in the US. However, charter schools have triggered the growth of a new concept: education management organisations (EMOs). Some believe these could prove to be the equivalent of the Health Management Organisations which now dominate American health care.
Although the original idea was for parents, teachers and community groups to run charter schools, such people are often too busy to operate schools full-time. Instead, many have hired management companies. In Michigan, the majority of charter schools are now run by private EMOs.
Some of these EMOs are now trying to "franchise" their operations throughout the country. If this takes off, privately-run charter schools could expand on a grand scale. However, once the EMOs start to bypass parent and community groups, one of the original principles of the movement - namely empowering parents to start up the schools they want - could be lost in the rush for commercial profits.
Mike Baker is education
correspondent for BBC News.
CHARTER SCHOOLS: WHAT ARE THEY?.
charge no fees, are open to all
operate on per-pupil, state aid in return for meeting targets set out in their contract or charter
are run by parents, community groups, or private companies
form part of the "school choice" movement to encourage competition and reduce bureaucracy
tend to be small, newly created schools, often providing "alternative" or vocational education
educate over 350,000 pupils in around 1,700 schools in 36 states
President Clinton set a target of 3000 charter schools by 2002
CASE STUDY: CENTRAL ACADEMY.
Central Academy could hardly be more different from the stereotypical American school. It is housed in a prefabricated unit on an industrial estate, in Ann Arbor, Michegan, with 265 students from kindergarten to high school-age, 85 per cent of them of Middle Eastern origin.
It was started as a charter school by two brothers unhappy with the existing choice of either very large public schools or private,
religious schools. It is now run by a non-profit management company.
The school offers a distinctive approach - all ages learn Arabic, the currciulum is initiated and developed by the staff working as a co-operative, classes are very small, and "special needs" labels are avoided.
It is not a religious school, charter-school law prohibits prayers or religious instruction. However, it sets great store by fostering respect, integrity, and honesty. The principal, Luay Shalabi, says many parents choose the school because they know that their children will be treated as individuals, in a small, safe environment which stresses tolerance.