- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 26, 2002

A new Virginia law that requires school districts to review charter-school applications is giving hope to a group that wants to open such a school in Fairfax County, where education officials have long resisted those efforts.

School districts previously have voted every two years on whether they would accept applications, making it difficult for charter schools to gain a foothold in some areas. In Fairfax County, for instance, the School Board has consistently voted not to consider charter-school applications.

The Fairfax-based group Parents for Autistic Children's Education is considering putting in an application for a charter school, frustrated with what it says is the system's refusal to accommodate programs that can help their children.

"We do not believe the school system is providing appropriate education for our children," said Tom Urban, a co-founder of the group.

Charter schools are independently run and publicly funded, receiving money based on a per-pupil allocation. If the group submits an application and it is approved, it would pave the way for the first charter school in Northern Virginia.

State education officials say the law was revised for the sake of groups that wanted to start charters, but met with resistance from school boards, which are the only chartering authorities in school districts.

"There were a lot of school divisions that voted 'no,' even when there were folks interested in starting charter schools in those areas," said Diane Pollard, education specialist for the Virginia Department of Education.

In 2000, 50 of the state's school districts voted against considering charter applications, while 82 voted for it.

The Fairfax School Board consistently has taken a stand against charters. In December 2000, it voted against accepting charter applications, with a majority arguing that there did not appear to be a need for such schools. This year, the board opposed the measure mandating that all school districts review charter applications. The new law goes into effect on Monday.

Some board members say they still do not see a need for charters.

"I have not had anybody come up to me to ask specifically for a charter school," said Jane Strauss, who represents Dranesville. She said a hearing on charter schools two years ago "showed very little interest."

Lack of interest isn't the only problem, she said. "There are a lot of unknowns with this one. We need the dollars to pay for it. It is not as if this is free money we have to find it from our budget. Also, space is an issue."

Since the General Assembly passed a law in 1998 allowing charter schools, eight have opened around the state. Though none of the charter schools is in Northern Virginia, Prince William and Loudoun counties, as well as Alexandria and Falls Church, have, in the past, voted to accept charter applications.

Critics say charter schools have not caught on in Virginia because the state's law is one of the weakest in the country. Charters in Virginia are required to follow state standards, and teachers are school system employees. School boards are the only ones authorized to grant charters a role some say conflicts with their interest in public schools.

Mrs. Pollard said the slow start is not necessarily a bad thing. "It takes a lot of planning to start a charter. In places where a lot of schools have developed in a short time, they have also closed down fast."

Some Fairfax School Board members support efforts to start charter schools in the region.

"Fairfax has diversified programs for everything you can think of, but there still are groups of children whose needs we cannot meet," said Rita Thompson, at-large school board member.

The board will discuss charter-school policy guidelines, which is required under the new law, at its July 11 meeting. A spokeswoman for the school system said schools Superintendent Daniel A. Domenech also has asked for the creation of a staff task force to draw up a policy on charter schools.

The county PTA has consistently opposed charters. Diane Brody, president of the association, said the group was against charters "because we feel charter schools will weaken resources for all public schools."

Mr. Urban said his group plans to do some more research before deciding whether to submit an application. The earliest such a school could open would be the 2003-04 school year, since the budget for next year already has been approved.

He said the school is most likely to serve preschool and elementary-school children "because those are the most crucial years for a child with autism." He said the school system, which has 502 autistic children, fought his group "aggressively" on implementing programs for such children.

Patricia Addison, director of special education for the county school system, said the system had several programs for autistic children. A new, redesigned program also would be implemented in the coming year "that will fully meet the needs of children with autism," she said.

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