Why Did I Ignore Charter Schools?

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 27, 2005; 11:48 AM

Charter schools -- tax-supported schools independent of their local school districts -- have become an important part of the education story in America. At The Washington Post we have tried to give them the attention they deserve. We write about them often, including a major series of stories on their progress in the District, and report their latest achievement data and funding problems.

But I have learned that both my newspaper and I have been, in at least one instance, treating them as if they did not exist -- a bad habit shared by many across the country. Nobody likes to be ignored for no good reason, but that is what has been happening to charter schools, and it is not good for the 1 million students attending 3,500 such schools in 40 states plus the District.

My blind spot was revealed to me by Nona Mitchell Richardson, communications manager for the D.C. Public Charter School Board. It is one of the two agencies, the other being the D.C. school board, that can grant charters to independent public schools in the District. Richardson asked me why charter school teachers were not allowed to participate in The Post's Agnes Meyer Outstanding Teacher and Distinguished Educational Leadership award programs, which each year recognize the best teachers and principals in the Washington area.

I confessed to her that I had never even thought about it. I often attend The Post award ceremonies and am proud of my company for involving itself in schools in this way. The Post's corporate involvement in education goes back to Agnes Meyer, the grandmother of Washington Post Company Board Chairman Donald E. Graham. She was a relentless advocate for public schools. I suspect if she were still alive, she would have noticed quickly that we were overlooking charter schools. But in all those happy award ceremonies, it never occurred to me that we were forgetting somebody.

This is pretty embarrassing, given the fact that the District has 24 percent of its public school students attending 52 charter schools, a higher charter enrollment rate than all but one or two school districts in the country. I have watched some spectacular teachers in the 20 or so D.C. charter schools I have visited.

Many charter school educators think they are ignored by educators in the regular public schools out of fear and jealousy. It is true that many regular school superintendents, principals and teachers think charters are luring away motivated parents and students and taking school funds they don't deserve. You can imagine some of them might try to freeze charters out because of that resentment.

But maybe their problem is more like mine, an inability to adjust one's thinking to a new era, like my refusal to admit I can no longer consume a pint of chocolate chip ice cream with no adverse consequences for my waistline or cholesterol count.

I asked charter school educators for other examples of being overlooked. They had plenty.

Lilian Thomas, administrator of the Midland Valley Preparatory School, a charter in Graniteville,S.C., said when charter schools first sent in their applications for district teacher of the year, the central office said it never received them. Since then, some charter school teachers have been recognized, Thomas said, but at the banquet, "the charter school teachers are called last and their place for the [group] photo is behind a giant column."

Mary Finn, who teaches at the Cesar Chavez Public Charter High School in the District, said she had been trying to get some of the federal funds allocated to the District to support her application to become a national board-certified teacher. Last year she made several phone calls and was finally told they weren't sure if they could help her, but would call her back. They didn't. She tried again in July and was told they would check and get back to her because the "forms and application for funding did not apply to charter school teachers." She is still waiting for that call.

In Greenville, S.C., the Sirrine scholarships of $200 to $2,000 have helped many public school graduates over the years, but Laura H. Getty of the Greenville Technical Charter High School said charter school students are not eligible. She has also noticed that the state of South Carolina does not allow charter school teachers to participate in the state retirement system unless they were in the system before they moved to a charter school.

How about a simple thing like T-shirts? The D.C. schools have a partnership with the Fannie Mae Foundation that waives registration fees and provides free Help the Homeless T-shirts for students who want to participate in one of the fundraising walks. But charter school students, even the many who come from low-income homes, have to pay if they want to walk and wear the T-shirt.

Mike Zoeller, whose daughter attended a D.C. charter elementary school, said the regular public junior high school she wanted to attend would not let her participate in one of the Buddy Days, in which prospective students visited the junior high campus, because she was in a charter school.

Ariana Quinones-Miranda, executive director of the D.C. Public Charter School Association, said whenever a government agency or scholarship provider sets up a program with the D.C. public schools, charter schools are often treated as if they don't exist. One D.C. charter school supporter, Linda Scope, noted that the D.C. school board has two slots for student representatives, but no system for including charter school students in the selection process.

How about seats on school boards for charter school representatives? At a recent conference in Phoenix, I was surprised to meet Anita Mendoza, an assistant superintendent for a charter school system who has been appointed to the Arizona state school board. Mendoza said she is happy to be able to represent the charter school point of view, but many blind spots still exist even in as charter-conscious a state as Arizona. Charters are often overlooked in grant programs, she said, and state programs still don't accommodate them very well.

Be that as it may, at least we at The Washington Post are trying harder. We first suggested that the D.C. charter schools get an endorsement from the D.C. school superintendent to participate in our award programs. Quinones-Miranda apologized for not getting back to us as quickly as she could have to explain why that would not work, since the superintendent has no authority over charters in the District. The Agnes Meyer and Distinguished Educational Leadership winners are selected by their districts, not The Post, so we apparently need to find some representative body to make similar decisions for charter schools.

Eric Grant, director of public relations and contributions for The Post, said he will hold more talks with the charter school people to work something out. He noted that The Post has contributed more than $66,000 in grants to charter school teachers developing innovative projects, and The Post is well aware that the educational landscape has changed. The Post has also invited one charter school principal to its annual Principals Leadership Institute.

But am I cured of thinking of charter schools as some alien species, or not thinking of them at all? I hope so. We shall see.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company