Proposal Unsettles Charter Schools

By Theola Labbé
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Officials at some charter schools say Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's education proposal could cause them to lose touch with the public because it would place them under an appointed board.

Under the proposal unveiled by Fenty (D) last week, 18 charter schools under the D.C. Board of Education would be transferred to the D.C. Public Charter School Board. The charter board, created by Congress in 1996, is a seven-member panel appointed by the District mayor in consultation with the U.S. Secretary of Education. It has authorized 37 schools. The D.C. Board of Education also authorizes charter schools and has approved 18.

Ramona Edelin, executive director of the D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools, said officials of many of the 18 schools are angry and anxious. "The whole point of being a public school is to be connected to officials in the public policymaking process," Edelin said. "They don't see the [charter board] as that same kind of connection."

Norman Johnson, executive director of the Integrated Design and Electronics Academy (IDEA) charter school, said he applied to the school board 10 years ago because he wanted to be accountable to the local elected body.

"Parents still want to talk to an elected board about their issues," said Johnson, whose school opened in 1998. "When you have an elected board, you get people who represent people."

But Fenty and some D.C. Council members described the planned consolidation as a much-needed improvement of the charter school structure, which splits power between the two boards.

"It's quite confusing today, who's in charge," council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) said last week at the announcement. "Putting those all together and having an oversight responsibility is critical as we go forward."

Nationally, most states have more than one group, including a local school board, that can open charter schools. A 2005 report by the Government Accountability Office largely praised the D.C. charter board and criticized the school board's oversight. Last year, the Board of Education voted to give up its power to open charter schools.

Fenty's proposal puts a spotlight on the charter board, which has a $1.9 million annual budget and has remained largely under the radar as the number of charter schools has swelled in the past 10 years.

The board has a Web site,, where it announces its monthly meetings, but it does not post meeting agendas or approved board minutes. The meetings, held in leased offices in Columbia Heights, are not televised and attract mostly people connected to charter schools rather than the general public.

The board approves its own budget but undergoes an annual audit by a private accounting firm. It submits annual reports to the council, the mayor and Congress and complies with Freedom of Information Act requests. Board members do not receive a stipend and do not have public e-mail addresses or individual board phone numbers.

Chairman Thomas A. Nida said the board ultimately is accountable to the mayor and, by extension, the public. But with the changing education landscape, Nida said, the board has discussed ways to raise its profile.

"I think it's clear that increased transparency is something that we all need to be moving to," Nida said.

The mayor's proposal would empower the State Education Office, a city agency, to grant a school charter on appeal if the charter board rejected an application. The office also would gain the power to close a charter school at any time for financial reasons or after three years of poor academic performance. The school board and charter board can close schools now for academic reasons after five years.

Robert Cane, executive director of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, said older charter schools generally outperform younger ones, so shortening the academic review from the current five years to three does not allow enough time for new schools to prove themselves. Cane also questioned why the State Education Office would be granted new powers without being granted full power to authorize charter schools.

But overall, Cane said, he was excited about the mayor's proposal.

"For the first time since we've had charter schools, we have a comprehensive effort to align the D.C. education structure with reality," Cane said. "And the reality is that we have 56 local education agencies [55 charter schools and the D.C. school system] who are competing for students, funding and real estate."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company