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Charter schools serve just 6 percent of the nation’s public school students, but they have prompted bitter debates about educational priorities – and fair competition – particularly in cities that have a lot of them.

Charter schools are given broad flexibilities from rules and regulations governing traditional public schools, such as how they spend their budgets or decide who to hire. The original goal of this flexibility was to inspire innovative school models that could test out new teaching strategies and school designs and then funnel lessons back to their districts.

“They were supposed to be radically innovative,” said Lance Fusarelli, a professor of the politics of education at North Carolina State University.

While many charter schools have incorporated nontraditional elements into their school days, experimenting with new instructional models, academic calendars, and student supports, most of them look an awful lot like traditional public schools.  Still, when charter schools see promising academic gains, educators in traditional public schools tend to cry foul. They’re competing on an uneven playing field, with charter schools having the advantage, they say.

Massachusetts was one of the first states to extend the flexibilities charter schools enjoy to traditional public schools through an innovation law. Like charters, “innovation schools” would have more control over their budgets, staffing, curriculum and instruction decisions, and a variety of operational regulations.

Paul Reville, state secretary of education at the time, said there was a lot of demand for this type of freedom within traditional public schools.

“We said, ‘Fine, we’ll give you those autonomies so you can stop complaining about people on the outside taking them,’” he said.

Massachusetts now has 41 innovation schools. The Margarita Muniz Academy in Boston has used its flexibility to create a bilingual high school for a predominantly Latino student body, giving immigrant students a way to excel academically while they learn English and American-born Latinos a way to connect with their culture through language. The Carleton Innovation School in Salem adopted a trimester system to accept kindergartners three times per year, once they turn 5, changing a traditional cutoff that requires kids turning 5 after Sept. 1 to wait an entire year to start school.

Related: A Spanish-English high school proves learning in two languages can boost graduation rates

The model hasn’t always panned out. A proposed innovation school in Somerville, Massachusetts, called Powderhouse Studios, aimed to completely rethink common notions of school. It would have had students learning in multiage cohorts, focused primarily on projects of their own design in a space resembling more of a creative workplace than a school.

Powderhouse Studios stood out among the state’s innovation schools, most of which Reville said changed only a few things about traditional schooling and didn’t change them that much. By contrast, Powderhouse, he said, was fundamentally reconceiving the idea of school and how it was done.

“We were eager to see it happen,” Reville said. “It was what was supposed to happen in the whole charter school movement – for people to have charters as a test. But you got a whole bunch of direct instruction schools.”

As recently as January, the proposal had the support of the superintendent, the teachers union, the mayor, a fair number of Somerville families and regional and national foundations, including XQ, which pledged $10 million to help get the school off the ground. But the school committee unanimously rejected the proposal in March.

Related: Anatomy of a failure: How an XQ Super School flopped

Twenty-four states now have innovation programs that schools and districts can use to secure freedom from state regulations, according to a national analysis by ExcelInEd. The majority of these innovation programs give a district the ability to select innovation schools from within its ranks. Massachusetts is in the distinct minority in allowing outside individuals to propose standalone innovation schools. It sets up an approval process remarkably similar to the one charters go through. Several states, though, explicitly describe their innovation programs as bringing charter-like flexibility to traditional district schools.

Maria Worthen, vice president for federal and state policy at iNACOL, tracks state legislation that supports educational innovation and said such legislation is a good way to get started. It empowers local leaders to rethink education in ways that work best in their communities, she said.

The process ended up being contentious in Somerville, but in general, Worthen sees innovation schools as a way to give educators who are already excited about innovative schooling the freedom to try new things.

“It’s not a mandate, it’s not a requirement,” she said. “It just says, ‘Hey, if you’re feeling like there are some state regulations or laws that are impeding your ability to do what’s best for kids, let us know and maybe we can lift some of those regulations.’”

For the last few years, the trend has been in only one direction – more innovation programs in more states. And especially where districts are forced to compete with charters, that trend is likely to continue.

This story about innovative schools was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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