- The Washington Times - Friday, May 5, 2000

''So much for education reform. It's right down the toilet." Bill Lightfoot, a former D.C. Council member, spoke those words four years ago when the council passed legislation creating charter schools. Then, as now, he and other advocates of charter schools feared red tape would strangle the new and innovative schools as it did regular public schools. And it may yet.

In the wake of news reports that many D.C. charter schools have failed to comply with financial and record-keeping requirements, Kevin Chavous, chairman of the D.C. Council's education committee, said he wants to create a new office to monitor charter schools. Although charter schools presented "exciting" possibilities, he said, he was concerned about "loosey-goosey" practices into which some had slipped.

It's true that while some of the reported problems merit concern some charter schools, for example, hadn't filed audited financial reports due last November an overreaction might undermine the excitement of which Mr. Chavous spoke. Charter schools are public schools. The difference is that parents and teachers, not the usual government suspects, run the schools. Of course there are regulations and laws by which they must abide, but for the most part charter schools are deliberately designed to operate outside of normal bureaucracies. For example, parents at a charter school might want their students to take several science and technology courses a year and solicit private entities to help cover the cost of laptops and related peripherals. Parents in ordinary public schools must follow a standard curriculum, and fund-raising is restricted.

Currently, 27 charter schools operate in the city, and they have an enrollment of 7,000. Several others will open next school year, and enrollment is expected to grow to 11,000. Already there are two boards overseeing charter schools here. One, the D.C. Public Charter School Board, helps set up schools and monitors their academic achievement. The other, the elected D.C. Board of Education, focuses on bureaucratic requirements. Presently, the latter is concerned that one charter school did not administer its standardized tests at the same time as others. The board, which never supported charter schools in the first place, could use this mistake to yank the school's charter.

It's hard to believe that the solution to the problem is to create a third oversight board where two already exist. The last thing this city needs is another Office of Anything. It would be helpful to keep the problems in perspective. Robert Childs, president of the elected school board, told The Washington Post, "We've not seen gross mismanagement." Says Nelson Smith, executive director of the charter school board, some reports may be late, "but that's because the staff is working day and night with kids. The most important bottom line is: Is the school living up to its mission?"

Adding another regulatory agency may make it more difficult for charter schools to do so. It may even, as Mr. Lightfoot so bluntly put it, help flush some of them down the drain. There are plenty of D.C. schools down the drain already. Let's not add more.

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