Council Members Propose Tighter Rules for Program

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Two D.C. Council members proposed significant changes yesterday in how public charter schools are established and regulated, including a 15-month planning period before newly approved schools can open and a District residency requirement for appointees to the Public Charter School Board.

The measure, introduced by Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) and council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), reflects increasing concern about quality and accountability in the rapidly growing public charter movement. The bill was prompted in part by the prospect that the city might have to pay more than $7 million to fund new charter schools that are in the process of being converted from Catholic schools set for closure.

Charters, which are publicly funded but governed and operated by private, nonprofit boards, were envisioned as an alternative to poor-performing District schools but have not fared much better in improving student achievement. Only 10 public charter schools made adequate yearly progress last year in reading and math scores, as defined by the federal No Child Left Behind law.

"These schools are supposed to be innovative, experimental and show best practices. Failing to make adequate yearly progress . . . is no best practice," said Wells, a former member of the now-defunct D.C. Board of Education and a longtime critic of charter schools.

The measure advanced by Gray and Wells would amend the School Reform Act of 1995 -- the legal foundation for the creation of public charter schools -- because the law has become "outdated and proven ineffective to ensure the council's ability to provide effective oversight," Gray said.

The proposal would check the rate of charter school growth by limiting a new school to operating on just one campus during its first year. The city's 55 charter schools are currently spread over 82 locations. Schools that want to expand would have to meet specific criteria involving student performance, financial backing and market demand.

Public Charter School Board Chairman Tom Nida did not respond to a phone message yesterday. Robert Cane, executive director of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, a group that promotes charter schools, denounced the proposal as further evidence of Wells's antipathy toward charters.

"I think it's a dreadful bill," Cane said. "It's clearly putting a political agenda above D.C. kids and their parents."

The Center City Consortium, a group of schools organized by the Archdiocese of Washington, plans to convert seven financially troubled Catholic schools to public charters. The charter school board is expected to act on the application this month.

Doxie McCoy, Gray's communications director, said the amendments proposed yesterday would not cover the Center City application. But Gray and Wells, unhappy about the prospect of adding seven new charter schools to the city books with barely three months of lead time, want to keep it from happening again.

Most proposed charter schools exist principally on paper when they are approved and take about a year to acquire a building, staff members and students. The consortium, however, has schools, faculty and students and is pressing to open this fall. Otherwise, the archdiocese said, the schools will be forced to close.

If the application is approved by the public charter board, the District would be required by law to fund the schools for a fall opening. The cost depends on enrollment but could range from $7 million to $14 million, city officials estimate. The District's 2009 budget, which received final approval from the council yesterday, does not include money for the schools.

The council approved a separate budget amendment by Wells requiring that no money be spent on charter schools unless it has been appropriated by the council and asks Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) to come up with a plan to pay for them.

Wells and Gray said the residency requirement included in their proposal reflects their belief that charters have become such an expense for the District that the seven-member charter school board -- appointed by Fenty from a list of potential members vetted by the federal government -- should include only D.C. residents. Two members live outside the District.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company