- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 7, 2011

Montgomery County school officials appear poised to approve the county’s first charter school, but want more time before reaching a final decision.

The county’s Board of Education voted Thursday to delay until July 25 a vote on whether to approve Community Montessori Charter School, a proposed pre-kindergarten to third-grade school to be run under county supervision by Kensington nonprofit Crossway Community Inc.

Several board members said they like the proposal but need time to shore up a few important details and settle on an admissions process.

“This is not a matter of kicking the can down the road,” said school board President Christopher S. Barclay. “This is a matter of making sure that the decision … will be based on thoughtful consideration of all the risks that exist for the school system.”

The Maryland General Assembly legalized charter schools in 2003, giving local school boards complete authority over whether to accept or deny applications. The schools are founded by private groups, but are publicly funded and staffed by union teachers.

Forty-two charters have since opened across the state, including 33 in Baltimore. But Montgomery officials have long resisted the schools, which are often established to provide unique instruction in underperforming school districts. There are more than 5,000 charter schools in the United States.

While Montgomery schools have been frequently ranked among the best in the state and the country, board members said a qualified charter school could provide new learning opportunities and strengthen the school system.

“I support high-quality charter schools that are held to the same standards as Montgomery County public schools,” said board member Patricia O’Neill. “I believe that this applicant is committed to working with us.”

The board rejected a similar proposal from Crossway last year. If approved this time around, the school would open in 2012 and enroll 122 students, expanding to 188 students by its fourth year.

Board members delayed their vote Thursday mostly over concerns about how to reconcile the school’s enrollment procedures with Crossway’s goal to target mostly underprivileged students.

The group, which educates and counsels low-income families, initially sought to recruit students but was barred by state laws from doing so. The county considered allowing open countywide enrollment, but officials worried such a process could force out low-income students if demand exceeded capacity and led to a lottery.

Board members discussed an alternative proposal to designate a geographic zone, or “catchment area,” in which local students would have first priority, to ensure underprivileged students would be served.

Under the plan, all parents within the zone could enroll their children at the school unless demand exceeds its capacity, in which case students would be selected by lottery.

If demand within the zone is below capacity, remaining spots would then open up to children who live elsewhere in the county. If demand for those spots exceeds capacity, they would be filled by lottery.

Board members said they would need a waiver from the state to establish a catchment area and that Crossway Community would help to decide its boundaries.

The board is expected to vote on the proposal July 25, but officially has until July 29 to make a decision.