The charter school concept will become a reality and part of Utah's educational landscape in fall 1999.

Let's hope it evolves into something more than the current pilot program status. It needs to for the public to be fully integrated in the charter school process.Competition for charter school status is intense, and at this point the State Office of Education believes early public involvement is outweighed by the need for confidentiality by the competing interests. A committee that includes parents is involved in the early selection process.

Still, for the concept to succeed, it needs broad-based public support from the beginning of the process to the end. State education officials are confident that will be the case as the charter school movement expands.

Charter schools are specialized public schools offering increased autonomy, choice and more parental involvement opportunities. The schools cannot discriminate on whom they enroll. They must distribute state-mandated tests and follow the state core curriculum.

Charter school legislation passed last month permits eight pilot schools. The schools will share $500,000 in start-up funds based on need and receive state per-pupil and ongoing funds plus one-time money for books and supplies.

The two inaugural schools focus on American sign language and the performing arts. The Jean Massieu School, to be set up by the Utah Deaf Education and Literacy Foundation, will serve 20 students, preschool through third grade, and hopes to employ deaf teachers. Classroom space in the Jordan School District has been requested to house the new school.

Tuacahn High School for the Performing Arts in Ivins, Washington County, will offer a sophisticated college prep academic program plus instruction in music, dance and theater arts by professionals or veteran instructors. Gerald R. Sherratt, former Southern Utah University president and president of the Tuacahn Center for the Arts, will lead the school.

As the first selections show, charter schools offer an innovative alternative to current educational options. These are the types of experiments worth trying as education enters the 21st century.