- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 22, 2010

D.C. schools open their doors Monday morning for the start of a new year, and charter parents and advocates say a new problem is compounding an old one.

This school year, the D.C. Healthy Schools Act mandating new feeding and physical-education policies takes effect. But charter schools are scrambling to meet some requirements of the new law, which says schools must feed students locally produced fruits and vegetables and offer students overall healthier meals. The act also raises the bar on physical fitness.

“The majority of charter schools are going in commercial buildings,” said Robert Cane, executive director of the advocacy group Friends of Choice in Urban Schools. (FOCUS). “We support good food and exercise, but charter schools have scrambled to meet requirements.”

Charter and traditional schools often lack cafeterias, and most charters lack green space for children to play or hold gym classes. Many don’t have a swimming pool, gymnasium, football field, tennis court or a track course.

“Charter schools often dont have playgrounds, play fields and cafeterias,” he said. “Parks and recreation [authorities] give priorities to D.C. public schools.”

Equitable funding and facilities are long-standing concerns of the school-choice movement, which saw a major victory in 1996, when Congress and the Clinton White House established the D.C. School Reform Act to provide charters as competition and public options for parents who tired of their children languishing in the D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) system.

Supporters point out that, today, parents of charter-school students have much to be proud of despite disparate facilities and funding disparities. Waiting lists prove public charters are trying to meet parental demands for more innovation programs, and rising test scores, graduation rates and studies prove they are closing the achievement gap for blacks, Hispanics and unprivileged youths, advocates said.

Friendship Public Charter Schools, for example, has nearly 6,000 student on nine campuses and a high-school waiting list of more than 260 students. Many of its student athletes have been recruited by or are attending some of the top colleges in the nation.

The number of students attending charter schools has been steadily rising by a few thousand students each year since 1996, with charters now educating 38 percent of D.C. public school students. The rate is expected to rise again this school year, perhaps to 40 percent, Mr. Cane said.

Advocates are more acutely aware of facility shortfalls because of another policy change: The citys push for universal preschool.

“We have a lot of interest in pre-[kindergarten] programs,” said Donald Hense, chairman of Friendship. “We added pre-Kprograms to our Blow-Pierce Elementary School.”

The rises in enrollment prove charters are trying to meet parents demands, he and Mr. Cane said. That is why, they said, the city should do more to meet the needs of parents who want more money and school-ready facilities, with the first option being the buildings of closed public schools.

“Putting city agencies instead of charters in closed schools is a sad thing,” Mr. Hense said. “It makes things much more difficult for charters. Younger kids need play space and green space. You need green space for these children.”

Some parents think charters should have been allowed to opt out of some provisions in the Healthy Schools Act.

“I believe it was a mistake to burden them with such a mandate,” said school-choice supporter Dave Hedgepeth of Northwest, who sends his daughters to a traditional public school. “Charters have enough trouble finding suitable facilities as it is, so adding additional requirements like this only adds to their burdens, and diverts time and resources away from their educational mission. Given that most charters serve lower-income populations that often lack resources in their homes and neighborhoods, it’s time and money these schools simply can’t afford to waste.”

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and the D.C. Council agreed this summer to look into the traditional public/public charter school-funding issue.

“The council passed the legislation as part of the budget support act to study all funding inequities,” Mr. Cane said. “There a big funding disparity in facilities and operational funding. This is a battle we hope to solve with the study.”

• Deborah Simmons can be reached at dsimmons@washingtontimes.com.

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