- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 30, 2000

Advocates of Montgomery County's first charter school application, which was denied approval by the county school board in March, are now asking the state to intervene in the first appeal of its kind in Maryland.

Yesterday, the Maryland Board of Education listened to arguments on whether it should hear the appeal of the Jaime Escalante Charter School application, denied by the Montgomery Board of Education March 9.

"We are not here to argue the merits of the application but to argue that we have the right to appeal to the state board," said Thomas Hylden, a lawyer who represents the charter school. "The application was improperly denied. Now we are asking for our day in court. And according to Montgomery's own policies, we should get it."

But attorneys for Montgomery County schools say that while applicants for charter schools which are publicly financed but privately run have a right to appeal to the state, they don't have the automatic right to be heard.

"Our opponents are saying the state board has the legal authority and the obligation to hear their appeal," said Judith Bresler, the school system's attorney. "We are saying that the state board has the jurisdiction and the discretion as to whether they hear the appeal."

She also questioned the appeals process and the state's ability to correct any improper action on the part of county schools.

"If the state board agrees to hear the appeal and rules in their favor, then what's the remedy?" she asked. "The state board is not in a position to grant relief. They can't order Montgomery County to open a school."

The state board of education is expected to rule on whether it will hear the appeal within 30 days.

The case is the first of its kind in the state. Maryland has no charter schools, with the exception of one experimental school in Baltimore, nor does it have any law governing them. For two years in a row, bills introduced in the General Assembly have died in committee. As a result, individual jurisdictions create their own policies. So far, only Montgomery County has done so.

Observers and advocates say this case illustrates the need for the state legislature to create a law governing charters.

"This helps make the case for the need for state legislation," said Joni Gardner, an advocate of charter schools.

There are more than 1,700 charter schools across the nation. In the region, the District of Columbia has almost 30 charter schools. Virginia has enabling legislation and federal money for charters and has opened at least one school in the past year.

Opponents say that charter schools drain much needed money and skim the top students from the public school system. They argue that if the system is broken, it should be fixed, not simply replaced. They add that many charter schools have failed to uphold rigorous standards.

But proponents say charters are uniquely situated to tailor education to the needs of their students because of their freedom from school bureaucracy.

The Escalante school was founded by parents and teachers Bob Mathis and Julie Greenberg. Named for a California educational reformer, the school wanted to create an intimate and rigorous environment for "average" kids. The school promised small classrooms and the stringent International Baccalaureate curriculum for middle school students.

Escalante supporters say that charter schools have faced strident resistance in affluent Montgomery County, where opponents point to the high standardized tests scores as proof that the system needs no dramatic change.

After the charter proposal received a last-minute conditional approval by schools Superintendent Jerry D. Weast in March, the Montgomery school board voted 5-3 against giving conditional approval.

"They changed the rules on the last play of the game," Mr. Hylden said.

But opponents on the board said the school wasn't unique enough and had facilities and admissions problems. Meanwhile, while Escalante prepares to apply again, other groups in other jurisdictions are exploring starting charters. In Prince George's County, two groups, including one denied a charter last summer, are making plans to apply again next year. In Frederick County, a small group of parents are working with the school board to approve a policy. And Hartford County has a small but determined group seeking a charter.

Without policies in place, though, charters are not easy to obtain, said Sharon Conn, who led the effort last summer in Prince George's to obtain a charter for a Temple Hills school.

"The board told us that we have to adhere to criteria to have our application approved," she said. "The snag is there is no criteria yet. We have to force them to create a policy if we want to see this realized."

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