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D.C. Board Seeks Halt To Charter Process

School Master Plan Is to Be Developed

By V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 10, 2005; Page B01

D.C. Board of Education members yesterday proposed a moratorium on charter school applications while the superintendent develops a "master education plan" that will guide future policies on everything from curriculum to school construction.

Members said they would use the master plan to assess whether a proposed charter school would fit the system's overall needs. The plan would determine, for example, whether more vocational, special education or other specialty schools were needed.

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Charter school advocates criticized the proposed moratorium and the idea of judging charter applications based on such a master plan, saying it would infringe on the schools' autonomy.

The Board of Education is one of two agencies authorized to approve charter schools. If the board imposed a moratorium, the other agency -- the D.C. Public Charter School Board -- would not be affected and could continue issuing charters.

Board members yesterday also proposed establishing a policy that would allow charter schools to share space with regular public schools in buildings that are underused.

Charter schools are public schools that operate outside most federal and local education regulations and often have innovative academic programs. The District has 42 charter schools, about 16 of which were licensed by the Board of Education, and enrollment in the schools has grown rapidly over the last decade.

Robert Cane, executive director of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, an advocacy organization, suggested that the board's proposed approach would violate the 10-year-old D.C. charter school law by allowing Superintendent Clifford B. Janey to play a role in charter schools.

The law, he said, requires the charter schools to remain independent of the school system and its staff.

"This is frightening and infuriating. This looks like an attempt to integrate the charter schools into the DCPS," Cane said.

"I think the board should get out of the chartering business and get another board . . . to take its place."

If the proposed moratorium is approved, Cane said, charter advocates will consider asking the D.C. Council to appoint another chartering authority in the board's place.

But board member Tommy Wells said the panel wants to strengthen its oversight after seeing five charter schools close because of financial mismanagement.

"If the superintendent determines [through the master education plan] that we need more bilingual schools or schools serving at-risk students, we would be able to use our role as a chartering authority to accomplish that," he said in an interview. "We want the superintendent to weigh in and share with us how charter schools can carry out his overall plan."

Without a master plan, Janey said at yesterday's board meeting, "we'd be putting the cart before the horse."

Janey has said he wants to develop the plan over the next six months or so.

The other proposal, to let charter schools "co-locate" with regular schools in underutilized buildings, is a response to a D.C. Council directive that required the school system to adopt a space-sharing plan a year ago. The plan was delayed while the school board went through the process of hiring a new superintendent.

Charter school officials say they have struggled in a hot real estate market to find affordable buildings to house their programs.

They have long sought approval from District school and government leaders to share space in underused schools and to use former school buildings that have been turned over to the city as surplus property.

According to charter school advocates' figures, 87 of the school system's buildings are underused by 40 percent or more, and 27 buildings are underused by 20 percent to 39 percent.

"We looked all over the city trying to find a site. As a nonprofit, we found it difficult to get anyone to lease to us," Karl Jentoft, co-founder and treasurer of Capital City Public Charter School in Northwest Washington, said in an interview.

The school for years leased space above a CVS pharmacy before eventually raising money and securing a loan to buy and refurbish an old church.

"We had no parking, no cafeteria and no playground area" in the original site, he said. "To co-locate in a DCPS building would be a win-win for us and the school system."

School board members agreed yesterday to vote on both charter school proposals next Wednesday.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company


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