washingtonpost.com  > Education > Maryland

For Charter Schools, It's Tough Going

Resistance Remains Strong Among Local Boards in Md.

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 21, 2005; Page B01

Bobbi Macdonald spoke at school board meetings, she mailed letters, she even wrote a folk song urging the Baltimore school district to act on her application for a charter school.

The city board didn't act until instructed to by the state school board, where Macdonald turned when all else failed.

Kristen Porter teaches seventh-grade science at the well-regarded KIPP D.C.: KEY Academy. Anne Arundel initially rejected a KIPP charter school proposal. (Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)

Proponents of Maryland's charter school law, including the governor who championed it two years ago, say they see continued resistance among local school boards, which have the sole authority to approve the privately run public schools.

Boards in Prince George's, Montgomery, Howard, Anne Arundel, Harford, St. Mary's and Dorchester counties, as well as Baltimore, have turned down charter school applications since 2002, the year the state's first charter school -- and the only one now operating -- opened in Frederick.

Ten charter schools have been approved since Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) signed the legislation in 2003, and seven Baltimore public schools are converting to charters. Fourteen other applications have been denied, a few of which have since won approval. None of the newly chartered schools has opened. Delays and disputes have sent several applicants to the State Board of Education for intervention.

"In many instances, school boards are hostile to charter schools, and I don't really understand why, but they are," Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele (R) said. "We intend to push for a stronger law."

Maryland's charter school movement suffered perhaps its most demoralizing setback this month, when the Anne Arundel school board rejected an application from the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP. The applicant is widely regarded as one of the nation's best charter education providers. It has Washington and Baltimore campuses -- the latter of which is not a charter school -- that are ranked among the top-scoring schools in those districts.

Two weeks later, after the Ehrlich administration and U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, among others, had weighed in on the decision, the school board reversed itself and awarded a charter to KIPP.

Maryland and Virginia have charter school laws ranked among the nation's worst by the Center for Education Reform, a Washington-based charter advocacy group.

In both states, local school boards have the sole right to award charters. Applicants in Maryland may appeal to the state board, which can't grant a charter but can reverse the decision of a local board. Virginia applicants have nowhere to turn. No charter school has ever been approved in Northern Virginia.

Fifteen states and the District allow universities or independent panels to approve charters. About 57 percent of the nation's charter schools are in those jurisdictions, according to the education center. Unlike local school boards, those groups do not compete with the schools they charter.

Washington, whose school-choice experiments have played out under the eye of Congress, has one of the nation's strongest charter school laws. An independent board is empowered to approve charter applications, in addition to the local school board. The city has 49 charter schools.

Charter education advocates see a conflict in placing local school boards in charge of awarding charters. Charter schools draw students from neighboring public schools and dollars from district coffers. Successful charter schools could embarrass the local board by doing a better job with the same students.

School boards argue that they are in the best position to judge applicants' academic and administrative plans and to ensure a consistent level of quality control.

In Anne Arundel, school board members initially voted against KIPP out of concern that the school would deplete the two Annapolis middle schools, already under-enrolled.

"I don't understand how you turn down KIPP," Steele said. "I don't see how that even happens."

Maryland's charter school law does not list criteria for granting or denying a charter. The state law gives little guidance on many such points. School board members say much of their hesitancy in approving charter schools stems from uncertainty in how to apply the law.

"The law is atrocious, the way it's written," said Michael J. McNelly, an Anne Arundel board member, venting frustration during the KIPP debate.

The City Neighbors Charter School offers another example of a struggle to obtain a charter. City Neighbors first applied to the Baltimore school board in March 2004. The school board was bound by law to respond within 120 days but did not. The applicant appealed to the state and prevailed.

The Prince George's school board declined at first to even consider an application for the Potomac Charter School, telling the applicant last spring that board members weren't ready to hear applications. The school appealed to the state and won. The board then read the application and rejected it, judging it to be inadequate. The applicant appealed to the state and lost.

Baltimore board members told charter applicants that they would allow only three charters in the first three years under the new law.

The state board overturned that cap, which state law did not allow. The school board has since awarded a charter to City Neighbors and four other new schools in Baltimore.

State Sen. Roy P. Dyson (D-St. Mary's), author of the charter school law, said he battled organized opposition from teachers, school boards and superintendents to get the bill passed in weakened form. He, Steele and other charter school proponents suggest amending the law so more groups can grant charters.

"I would like to see multiple chartering authorities," said Joni Berman of the Maryland Charter School Network. "In the university system. An independent chartering authority. The state board. Anybody."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company


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