- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 19, 2003

When charter schools opened in the United States a decade ago, they offered hope to parents tired of a public education systems that had often let students fall through the cracks.The schools offered the advantages of a private education without the price tags. They promised smaller class sizes and one-on-one attention to each student. And they offered specialized programs that focused on the arts or public policy, which public schools had neither the time nor resources to implement.
More than 2,400 charter schools have opened in the country since 1992, the entire time entering and exiting the national debate about whether corporations could manage schools better than governments.
Today, as many as 37 states and the District have laws allowing charters. And the list will most likely grow, now that Congress has passed President Bush's "No Child Left Behind" initiative, which gives charters an additional $225 million in grants.
In 1996, the District passed legislation permitting two authorities the public school board and an independently run board to grant a maximum 12 charters a year.
Supporters say the D.C. system is ideal because most states allow only school boards to grant charters. And critics say board members usually support public education and are reluctant to direct money elsewhere.
Virginia has had such a law for four years but has only eight charter schools. The slow start has earned it the reproach of the Center for Education Reform a pro-charter, nonprofit group that ranks Virginia third-worst among states with charter-school laws.
Maryland has no state law on charters so that the power to open them belongs to local school districts.
Right now, Frederick County has one charter school while Montgomery County has rejected proposals for them for two consecutive years.
Advocates hope the situation will improve, now that the General Assembly is working on a bill to give the state power to create charter schools and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. wants more of them.
The District
Today, the District has 36 charter schools that this year serve more than 11,500 students, about 15 percent of the city's public school population. Meanwhile, enrollment in the D.C. public-school system has dropped during that time from 68,422 to 67,522 students.
Among the most hopeful when the first charter school opened in the District in 1995 were thousands of students who were bused to such places as Annapolis and Delaware because the city could not provide certain special-education classes.
The schools also offered problem students computer and vocational classes, which prompted parents to wait in registration lines year after year. Those who did not get in gladly put their names on waiting lists.
But there is little evidence so far to show just what charter schools in the District have accomplished, despite the widespread support.
Test scores, which charter advocates say are not reliable indicators, are not promising.
In 2001, 11th graders in seven schools run by the District's public-school board scored an average of 35.7 percent on the Stanford 9 math test while public school students at 18 high schools scored an average of 49 percent that year. The nationwide average is 50 percent.
Charter administrators have said that the problem is many incoming students were already performing poorly in public schools and that it takes time for improved results.
Linda McKay, former executive director of the D.C. public school board's charter program, said administrators are now using a less-standardized method of measuring progress, which tracks student progress from the time they arrive.
"We have to look at the growth each child has made over time," she said.
Executive Director Jacqueline Baker of the D.C. Public Charter School Board says the movement is still in its formative stage.
"I think it's thriving," she said. "We have some bright spots, some average, and some struggling. But this is an entrepreneurship, and research shows that it takes five to seven years to say a new educational institution is working."
Miss Baker also says charters are not a replacement for public schools, just an alternative.
"They help you get out of the box," she said.
Others, such as Miss McKay, say charter schools simple increase competition, which usually improves quality.
Supporters also say success is not always measured by test scores and point to the Cesar Chavez Public Policy Charter School.
Though test scores at the school have fluctuated over the past three years, the entire 2001 graduating class got into college, and one student was accepted into an Ivy League university.
That was a major accomplishment for a class in which many of the students could not write when they entered the ninth grade, said Principal Irasema Salcido.
Miss Salcido also said that during her first year, she held back 45 of the school's 60 ninth-graders, but the situations improved quickly. Most of the students passed the following year, and some will graduate on time.
"We call them the survivors," she says with a laugh.
Student Ana Paz, a senior, said she was an average student with little interest in her grades before transferring there from Paul Junior High a year ago.
"I really didn't care about school," she said.
Though the curriculum at Cesar seemed harder, she told herself, "I cannot drop out."
Ana Paz, 17, attributes her success to her new teachers, who emphasized going to college, and she now plans to become a nurse.
But with the successes also come the horror stories.
Six charter schools in the District including Techworld have been closed because they failed to provide such necessities as classroom supplies and clean bathrooms. Meanwhile, corruption and mismanagement have also played a part in the charters' failures.
The Jos-Arz Academy Public Charter School is about to close, and the school board has accused Principal Gwendolyn Kimbrough of fiscal mismanagement.
The principal at Techworld awarded thousands of dollars in bonuses to himself and a few other teachers before the school was closed down by the District's public-school board, according to officials.
Miss McKay calls the problems growing pains.
"When the [public-school] board began the process of approving charters, it had nothing to compare them with," she said. "Some of the applicants who received charters then would not receive them today."
Virginia growing slowly
Though the Virginia legislature has a majority of conservative lawmakers, who typically support charter schools, advocates are disappointed by the lack of progress.
The state law passed in 1996 is considered weak by critics because it allows only charter schools that meet the needs of special students.
Until this year, power to open such schools went to local school districts
Fairfax County families hope the change in the law will help them open a charter school for autistic children.
Despite the problems, eight schools have opened so far in the state in Albemarle, Chesterfield, Franklin, Gloucester, Greene, Hampton, Roanoke and York counties.
Dianne Pollard, the Virginia Department of Education's charter-school specialist, said the movement is steadily gaining momentum.
"We are growing slowly because people are taking the time to make sure that the schools approved are comprehensive and will impact student achievement," she said.
Maryland without a law
If Mr. Ehrlich gets his way, Maryland will no longer be among the remaining 13 states without a charter-school law. He says that without the law, Maryland is losing thousands of federal dollars each year.
State lawmakers have gone back and forth on the issue for several years, including 2002, when a bill passed in the House but failed in the Senate.
This year, Sen. Janet Greenip, Anne Arundel County Democrat, has introduced a bill that would authorize school boards to review charters.
There have been a few attempts to open charters in counties in which school boards accept applications, including Montgomery and Frederick counties.
In Montgomery County, residents have tried for three years to open a charter school for minority students, whom they say are being left behind in an otherwise high-performing school system.
Organizers of the proposed Jaime Escalante Public Charter School in Wheaton say they have the numbers to support their claim, but the school board has twice rejected their application.
Joni Gardner, the former president of the Maryland Coalition for Education Reform, has tried for five years to open charter schools.
Mrs. Gardner said she became a believer after her daughter attended a charter school in Arizona.
"It did not provide a one-size-fits-all education," she said.
Mrs. Gardner later moved to Maryland and enrolled her children in public schools that she found inadequate. She has since joined educators and other parents who feel the same way.
"I firmly believe every child is entitled to a good education," Mrs. Gardner said. "Even adequate is not enough, and most of our children are not even getting an adequate education."
Monocacy Valley Montessori opened in Frederick County in the fall of 2002, becoming the state's first charter school. The school has 168 students in kindergarten through sixth grade and another 150 children on the waiting list.
Mrs. Gardner and others have praised the county school board and board President Ron Peppe.
"Frederick County wanted to do what was the best for our children," Mrs. Gardner said.
Meanwhile, founders of the proposed Jaime Escalante Public Charter School have said less-flattering things about the Montgomery County school board.
Joseph Hawkins, one founder, described the board's procedure of reviewing applications as a "sham."
Board Chairman Reginald M. Felton says that the county had no money for a charter school and that Escalante would only duplicate existing programs.
Mr. Hawkins and other founders are appealing the county's decision to the state Board of Education but have little hope of opening the school.
Mrs. Gardner said the struggle is further compounded by an organized effort against charter schools.
"Teachers unions are killing the charter schools in the state," she says.
Indeed, Susan Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers, once called the schools a "travesty of accountability."
Not enough space
Another problem facing charter schools, especially in the District, is that a shortage of space has limited enrollment.
For example, Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter School in Southeast had to reduce its freshman class by 50 percent this year after failing to find a replacement for the church in which it holds classes. A building offered by the city would have cost $10 million to repair.
Tri-Community Public Charter School postponed its opening by a year because of a similar problem and opened last fall with 40 students instead of an expected 400.
Public-school officials say they cannot give up their extra space because it is used as temporary classrooms while schools are being renovated. And buildings owners who once would have welcomed charter schools are now making more money selling to developers.
Meanwhile, Friends of Choice in Urban Schools (FOCUS) and other advocates say D.C. government officials have done little to help charter schools grow.
FOCUS officials say the District has designated 60 schools as surplus during the past few years, but charter schools occupy only 10. However, the District gave charters $4,000 to $7,000 a student in fiscal 2002.
The fight continues
Families in Fairfax County expect to have an application ready by July to open a charter school to serve autistic children. But they know the county has one of strongest public-school systems in the United States and their chances are slight.
Randy Nicklas, a parent and former public-school student, did not want to start a charter school for his autistic, 5-year-old. He wanted the public schools to have an adequate program or to help them create one.
"We didn't come to this as a first choice," says Mr. Nicklas, who runs a computer software firm in Reston."
School officials say the county does not have the money to pay for special programs.
If Mr. Nicklas and the other families are granted a charter, they still intend to eventually move their children into public schools, if they are welcome.
For that reason, he would like the proposed charter school within a public-school building.
"We are admittedly going to take a long shot," he said. "But it makes a lot of sense."

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