For better or worse, Arizona has decided that education is essentially a business. The new state Board for Charter Schools--Symington's appointees--is predictably heavy with conservatives.

The board includes Representative Jeff Groscost, a conservative; east Mesa Republican, and owner of a day-care center, Chairman Don Flake; and free-market business champions Senator John Huppenthal and Senator Ken Bennett, who represents business on the state Board of Education. The board is low on educators.

These advocates of charter schools assume that in a free-market, competitive situation, education will improve. They assume that as the public school system sees money walking out of the classroom into a charter school, it, too, will improve. Margaret Williamson is the spirit of charter schools: the woman who thinks she can do better than the public school system if only she had the chance. She is also a good example of how sterling intentions mean nothing in the dog-eat-dog world of educational capitalism.

"I got into this because I wanted to help kids," Williamson says. "I wanted to teach. I knew I could use my retirement funds for start-up funds."

Two years ago, Williamson left her job of 20 years, cashed in her state retirement and opened an alternative school, Academy With Community Partners. She educates 30 teenagers who probably otherwise wouldn't be in school. There are 12 more on a waiting list. Most have dropped out of other East Valley high schools. Classes take place in a tiny storefront near Extension and Southern in Mesa. Most of the assignments are completed on computers donated by Wal-Mart. Students go to Powerhouse Gym for physical education. Sophomore Brandon Perry runs the student store selling candy and pop and sundries to raise money for activities. Kids learn business, marketing and communications skills by selling products to raise money. Laura Rufh, a senior, is starting a newsletter for the students. Most go to school for free. Charging tuition would mean excluding the bulk of her students. But Williamson's school is near bust. Her savings are gone. She's sold her house. The school is surviving on a shoestring between donations and some grant money. Williamson counted on her school becoming a charter school, which would bring with it state funding for students.

But after five months of questions and answers and information filing, the state Board of Education last week rejected Williamson's application for a charter.

The problem is that Williamson is not a businesswoman, nor an administrator. She's a teacher. Her application is not a business plan. And that's what's needed in today's school market.

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