- The Washington Times - Monday, March 18, 2002

After several setbacks and more than three years of development, a proposal for what could have been one of Maryland's first charter schools went last week before the Montgomery County school board.
The concept for the Jaime Escalante Charter School was noble: to challenge and give more attention to poorly performing black and Latino students who may have been overlooked in the public schools.
But the board voted 5-3 to reject the school's application for a second time, saying funding wasn't available.
Escalante school supporters say the real problem isn't their proposal but the county's charter school policy, adopted in 1998.
"The process is set up not to have charter schools, so that nobody can get approval. They aren't ready for charter schools," said Ines Cifuentes, vice president of the Escalante board.
Maryland is one of only a handful of states without a charter-school law setting statewide policy on the schools, which are billed as alternatives to the public school system. Decisions are left to local boards in Maryland, and only two counties have adopted charter school policies.
Charter school proponents say a statewide policy, administered by the state education department and free of local politics and regulations, is the only way to get a charter school approved in Maryland.
A state law would also make charter schools eligible for much-needed federal funds, money that individual schools don't qualify for on their own.
The only approved charter school in the state, a Montessori elementary school slated to open this fall in Frederick County, has to raise its projected $844,000 annual budget without the federal grants available to charter schools in other states, said Montessori school advocate Leslie Mansfield.
"We are doing this with no federal money," she said after the county board approved the school's charter Wednesday by a unanimous vote. "We really need this state legislation to make us eligible."
There are several bills in the General Assembly to create state guidelines for charter schools and split chartering authority between the State Board of Education and local school boards.
The legislation would be "enabling" for local boards, which are currently "groping in the dark" when it comes to establishing charter schools, said Sen. Roy P. Dyson, Calvert Democrat and lead sponsor of a Senate version.
Charter schools are publicly funded but privately led institutions that operate outside many requirements dictated by local school districts. Some focus on specific topics, such as the arts or science.
Advocates tout them as alternatives to failing public schools, ones that offer a chance for teachers and parents to play a greater role in the curriculum. Minnesota passed the first charter-school law in 1991, and 37 other states and the District have followed suit.
Many of the 2,400 schools nationwide are located in urban areas. The District has 42 charter schools, according to the Center for Education Reform, a charter-school proponent. About 580,000 students are enrolled in charter schools across the country.
Maryland does not prohibit charter schools but has left the decision up to local districts. Only two, Montgomery and Frederick, have adopted policies to date, according to the state Department of Education.
The department supports two of the bills in the General Assembly, but there has been little public push in Maryland for charter schools, according to state education spokesman Ron Peiffer.
"It takes a big commitment on the part of a community to put one of those together," he said. "There's just not been a lot of interest in the state."
Charter school legislation has also been proposed in the General Assembly in recent years, but lawmakers have either shelved bills or not voted on them.
What Mr. Dyson's bill and others lack is an accountability mechanism, a way to ensure that the schools and teachers are held to the same standards as public schools, said Pat Foerster, president of the Maryland State Teachers Association.
"Charter schools could help other schools have an insight into what could be done to help students achieve at a high level," she said.
"But if you don't have accountability there, it's going to be hard to do."
The Escalante proposal not only lacked money, it also didn't provide any new opportunities or services to students, said Reginald Felton, head of the county school board. The county is open to charter schools, but only schools with new ideas, he said.
"It isn't unique," he said of the Escalante proposal. "It is taking some existing programs and recombining them. It isn't offering anything we don't currently offer in the school system."
The Escalante backers haven't decided yet if they are going to apply for a third time when the Montgomery board reviews charter school proposals next March.
Without a state law, they are not optimistic about the school's future. The county says it doesn't have the money and the group can't get federal funds.


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