Loudoun County appears poised to turn down charter school application

Loudoun County School Board members, many of whom campaigned to expand school choice, turned down their only pending charter school application Tuesday night after months of scrutiny and a storm of allegations that the applicants have hidden ties to a Muslim preacher.

Board members had raised questions about significant gaps in the academic and operational plans for the Loudoun Math & IT Academy, which hoped to become Northern Virginia’s first charter school. They criticized its loosely formed curriculum, shaky financial assumptions and an inadequate transportation plan before voting 8 to 1 to reject the application.

“As much as I wanted to support this effort, I am resigned that it is not of the caliber that Loudoun students deserve,” said board member Jeff Morse (Dulles).

Board members were also concerned that they had not heard more community support for the school among local parents. Just three people spoke in favor of the proposal during a three-hour hearing Feb. 19. The schools’ governing board had pushed for a longer review period, hoping to have more time to work with the school system on concerns.

On Tuesday, Mindy Carlin, a spokeswoman for the applicants, urged the school board to help them continue developing a promising plan. “Are there still details and questions to be resolved? Of course,” she said. “But has enough of a case been made to warrant further work?”

Opponents urged the board to drop the application, claiming that the school’s organizers are connected to a Turkish Islamic leader named Fethullah Gulen who oversees a worldwide religious and nationalistic movement from a retreat in Pennsylvania.

A loose network of Gulen’s followers have opened more than 130 schools in two dozen states, according to researchers. State and federal investigators have probed some schools for their practices of hiring foreign nationals and allegations that they require staff to donate a portion of their salary to the movement.

The Loudoun applicants, several of whom are of Turkish origin, have denied any connection to the controversial figure. They insisted that their proposal represents a grass-roots effort by a small group of mainly local parents and IT professionals who saw a need for more specialized training.

Board members said their primary concern was the quality of the application. “There is nothing in state code that prohibits us from looking at a school that may have ties to any organization, Gulen or otherwise,” said school board member Jill Turgeon (Blue Ridge). “My focus should be the educational impact of the charter.”

The proposed school, planned to eventually serve 700 students in grades six through 12, was modeled after Chesapeake Science Point Public Charter School in Anne Arundel County, which is an academic success story. But in recent years, the school’s operators have sparred with the local school board. Their hiring practices, lottery system and financial operations have come under scrutiny, and last year they sued Anne Arundel’s school board for more than $700,000.

The Loudoun applicants began garnering support for their vision of a similar school in 2011, and they submitted more than two dozen letters of support with their initial application.

Last fall, a school system review of the application identified deficiencies in the proposed curriculum and management plan. A school board subcommittee subsequently recommended that the full board reject the application.

Many board members said they were disappointed that the application was not stronger.

Bill Fox (Leesburg) said that as someone who is “extremely enthusiastic about school choice” and who believes decisions should never be made based on people’s real or alleged religious beliefs, it was the hardest decision he had faced on the school board. He was the only member who did not vote to reject the application outright, saying he wanted to give it more time to improve. As it was, he conceded, the plan was “problematic at best.”

Michael Alison Chandler writes about schools and families in the Washington region.
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