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The Future of D.C. Public Schools: Traditional or Charter Education?

Last month, in a rare legal victory for anti-charter forces, a federal judge allowed the case to go forward, ordering D.C. officials to respond to the claim.

Meanwhile, charters, which once focused mainly on rescuing children from the worst schools in the city's poorest neighborhoods, are expanding to more affluent areas and appealing to middle-class families.

Next month, the Washington Latin School, a charter for grades five through 12, is scheduled to open in the same Northwest Washington neighborhood as St. Albans, Sidwell Friends and other exclusive private schools. Washington Latin will offer a "classical education" that is "rich in antique and global literary sources," according to its Web site.

"What will be difficult is if the next wave of charters ends up attracting essentially middle-class families, the people who bought into the District five years ago [and] want to stay in the city but can't afford private schools," said Mary Filardo, executive director of the 21st Century School Fund. "If that's the next wave of growth, then DCPS will lose the middle class. And when you lose the middle class from this universal public institution, you lose the quality control."

Individual public schools are fighting back. Each spring now brings a battle for students, with dueling open houses and recruitment drives. This year, Ross Elementary near Dupont Circle bought ads in community papers touting its new art program.

Charter operators have proven equally aggressive. When M.C. Terrell Elementary in Southeast was targeted for closure in the spring, the founder of Nia Community Public Charter School showed up on Terrell's doorstep with fliers.

The outcome is crucial not only for today's schoolchildren, but also for the future of a city where troubled schools have long sent families fleeing to the suburbs. A recent Washington Post poll found that 15 percent of D.C. voters have confidence in the regular school system, the lowest recorded in a Post survey.

A Success Story

Lisa Koker made her decision without looking back. When the time came for her daughter, Sierra, to start school, Koker didn't bother to visit the public school in their Northeast Washington neighborhood.

"The public schools don't have the best reputation," Koker said. "You see them featured on '60 Minutes' and '20/20.' "

So Koker, a human resources manager, went shopping for a charter. Word of mouth led her to Capital City Public Charter School, one of the District's most popular. Founded in 2000 by middle-class parents frustrated by administrative problems and crumbling facilities at Hearst Elementary in Northwest, Capital City has about 225 students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade -- and a waiting list of more than 600.

Unlike traditional schools, charters have access to special facilities funds created by the city, Congress and nonprofit groups that allow them to borrow large sums. As a result, Capital City's founders were able to raise about $6 million to buy and renovate an imposing brick church in Columbia Heights.

The colorful, light-filled space has a state-of-the-art computer lab, a well-stocked library and a music room -- extras that have proven difficult to maintain in many traditional schools. Most classes have two teachers and access to a team of special education instructors, who offer discreet help in the regular classroom.

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