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New York embraces new type of state school

New York city last week hatched a bold plan to triple the number of charter schools to 75 in a huge fillip for America's alternative state school movement.

Schools officials announced a dedicated non-profit corporation, bankrolled with $40 million (pound;24m) from private donors, charged with setting up 50 new charter schools to cater for some of the city's most disadvantaged pupils.

The schools will be state-funded but autonomous. Crucially, they will have minimal local authority involvement so the fact they have been embraced by New York's school authority is being seen as highly significant.

"It's unusual," said Susan Fuhrman, dean of the University of Pennsylvania's graduate school of education. "Here we have a school district setting up a separate foundation to run charter schools, when most districts have been fighting charters, which they think drain resources from the public sector."

The city's education department will work with the new New York Center for Charter Excellence corporation to vet bids from outside parties to run schools. Existing school sites will be turned over to charter operators and a further $350m has been pledged from public coffers to get schools on their feet within five years.

"Charter schools foster innovation and attract vital new resources," said New York's Mayor, Michael Bloomberg.

However, New York's teachers' union said the initiative was nothing more elevated than a swipe at staff pay and conditions. Charter schools can hire non-union staff and strike their own employment agreements. "This is clearly an attempt to undermine the union by hiring non-union educators," Randi Weingarten, president of the United Federation of Teachers, said.

Nevertheless, Weingarten said the union would still bid to run one of the charters as a showcase for cutting-edge instructional techniques and staff-friendly pedagogical freedom.

Since their inception in 1992, charter schools, licensed to innovate unfettered by the bureaucracy of traditional state schools, have been touted as an antidote for lacklustre public education. However, while numbers have swelled to more than 2,300, they have had mixed fortunes, reeling from financial scandals and stung by accusations of lax academic standards.

A 2002 poll by Washington think-tank, the Brookings Institution, found charter students lagged behind their traditionally-educated peers by up to a year academically. Recent New York state test scores told a similar tale, but charter school proponents point out that charters are often handed the most challenging pupils.

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