WASHINGTON (AP) _ The nation's largest teachers union, a champion of public education, plans to spend $1.5 million to start five charter schools not bound by conventional rules.

The National Education Association said Tuesday that it will start charter schools over the next five years in Phoenix, San Diego, Colorado Springs, Colo., Atlanta and Oahu, Hawaii.

``The world has changed _ and that's forcing all our institutions to revisit the way they do things,'' said NEA President Keith Geiger. ``Schools are no exception.''

Charter schools are independent public schools, often designed by teachers and parents, that operate without many of the constraints imposed by local school districts. A charter outlines what students are expected to learn, but this can be revoked if the school fails to meet the goals.

There are an estimated 270 charter schools educating 60,000 students in more than 20 states.

Jeanne Allen, director of the Center for Education Reform, says the NEA's charter school initiative is a sign that the teachers union believes charter schools are a good idea.

``They've been accused of being anti-school reform and this is an attempt to show they're hip, cool and with it when in fact they're not,'' Ms. Allen says. ``It's commendable that they want to start charter schools. It's long overdue. It shows the power of the charter school movement.''

But Ms. Allen says that union contracts, which set conditions for hiring and firing, school hours, days and activities, are the very restrictions that charter school organizers are fleeing.

``The NEA is trying to show that the union is not part of the problem, but part of the solution,'' she says.

The 2.2 million-member NEA says, however, that it's willing to look at its own contracts if changes will encourage reform.

A master collective bargaining agreement for teachers is included in the new charter school being formed in Colorado Springs, but the union agreed to waive provisions to allow for a longer school year and school day and provide greater evaluation of employees, said Kathleen Lyons, a spokeswoman for NEA.

The money the NEA has pledged to create the five charter schools will be made through technical assistance in administration, budgeting, staff training and community relations. The NEA also will underwrite documentation and assessment to be conducted by an independent team from the University of California, Los Angeles.

Information obtained on the charter schools will be shared with other public schools across town, or across the nation, Geiger says.

``Our chief aim is to move the good school strategies we learn through our charter school exploration into practice in public schools across the country,'' he says.