In short, charter schools are the boutiques of schooling, taking education out of the factorylike public school system and making it a cottage industry.

Of the 50 charter schools that can be approved this year, 25 may be approved by the state Board of Education and 25 by the state Board for Charter Schools--a governor-appointed group whose entire job is to approve or reject charter school applications. Local school districts also may approve charter schools within their districts, but few have. That's mostly because the start-up funds would come out of the local district's budget instead of directly from the state. Schools are chartered for five years at a time; charters won't be renewed if the school has not met the goals of its contract with the state.

"The kids are our clients, and if we don't serve them, we go out of business," says Michael Matwick, whose charter school recently gained approval by the state Board of Education. "Our quality has got to be better than the public school system or it's over."

Profit-making is not new in the school business. Baltimore, Maryland, and Hartford, Connecticut, both have hired Education Alternatives Inc., a Minneapolis-based corporation, to take over their school systems, much to the chagrin of local teachers unions.

Best known, however, is media mogul Chris Whittle's Edison Project. The company, which includes former Yale University president Benno Schmidt, spent $40 million planning its version of the perfect school, and lobbied extensively for charter school legislation. Although the company has had its problems--it's running about three years late; Whittle Communications crumbled last year, forcing the sale of its other education venture, Channel One--the Edison Project finally landed contracts to run six schools. They're in Kansas and Massachusetts.

Neither EAI nor Edison has been able to show a dramatic increase in student performance or profitability. But it's too soon to tell.

"I'm looking for someone who's got a clear vision. A real Sam Walton type," says John Huppenthal, Republican chairman of the Senate Education Committee and a member of the state Board for Charter Schools. Michael Matwick and Adele Ferrini think they answer that description. They have run dropout-prevention programs at Marcos de Niza High School in Tempe for years. Now they're hanging out their own shingle.

Known as Arizona Career Academy, Matwick's and Ferrini's new school is tailored to students who aren't making it. They'll take anyone in high school as well as those who've dropped out.

It's no small challenge. And they've bet the store on it. Arizona Career Academy has promised the state a 90 percent graduation rate, 20 percent more than Arizona's getting across the board for its public-school dollar now. Matwick and Ferrini have also promised the state that students will leave their school ready to support themselves in a career.

Their plan calls for students to spend part of their time at jobs, working everywhere from Motorola to an auto repair shop. Students will take corresponding classes through GateWay Community College, East Valley Institute of Technology or other vocational schools.

Classes are offered in blocks from 8 a.m. to noon, noon to 4 p.m., 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. and all day on Saturdays. Students thus have plenty of opportunity to go to school, regardless of job schedule, transportation problem or child-care crises.

The plan is not new. It's something Matwick and Ferrini have been doing in bits and pieces at Marcos for years. "Everyone treats these kids as though they're irresponsible," Matwick says. "They're not. They are raising families and working. They're just not interested in school, or it doesn't work for them."

Matwick and Ferrini are opening two sites this fall. Each will house 150 students, an administrator, counselor and one certified teacher for every 25 students. The school doesn't even have stationery yet, but does have 26 letters of intent from future students. And Matwick says they've been contacted by more than 70 potential teachers.

Arizona has moved toward charter schools so quickly, no one knows what regulations govern them.

No one knows if charter school teachers are eligible to participate in the state's retirement system. Nor is it clear how money will be disbursed to the schools in July. Or how much of a $1 million stimulus fund each new school will get.

School owners are faced with the state's daunting accounting and finance system, along with procurement codes that govern the purchase of everything from buildings to pencils. And they will have to deal with federal regulations dictating everything from the rights of disabled children to the handling of compressed natural gas.

Adding to the confusion was a changing of the guard at the Department of Education in January. Republican Lisa Graham took over as superintendent of public instruction from former Democrat C. Diane Bishop and brought with her a new staff, mostly from the business arena.

One thing is clear, however. State officials want charter schools, and that's where they'll put their money.

Arizona will spend $16 million to $20 million funding new charter schools--including $4.5 million in funding for students formerly in private schools--and another $1 million in stimulus funds to help the start-ups. That's a lot of money, especially at a time when public school buildings throughout the state need more than $100 million in emergency repairs just to keep them safe.

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