Charter Schools Welcome in D.C., Less So in Suburbs

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 4, 2009

Few cities have embraced the charter school model like Washington, where one-third of public students are enrolled in the independently operated, taxpayer-funded schools. But in the suburbs of Maryland and Northern Virginia, the charter movement has stalled.

The divergent fortunes of charter schools in the region offer a lesson on why the experiment in reinventing public education has succeeded in some places and not in others, proponents say. The District has one of the nation's most charter-friendly laws, but Maryland and Virginia laws tend to favor school boards and the status quo.

President Obama embraced charter schools last month in a major education speech, praising their innovation and urging states to lift caps on their growth. Nearly two decades after the first U.S. charter was granted, the District is home to 60 charter schools, the second-largest concentration of any city after New Orleans. If trends continue, a majority of D.C. public students will attend charter schools someday soon.

Northern Virginia, by contrast, has no charter schools. The Maryland suburbs have seven, and three of those were launched only after a school board's denial was reversed.

School boards in Fairfax, Montgomery, Loudoun, Howard and Calvert counties have fended off charter startups, often arguing that their communities are well-served without them. The well-known struggles of the D.C. school system, where scores on national tests often rank near the bottom, have fueled calls for radical reform. But most of Washington's suburban school systems stack up well in state and national rankings.

Local school boards cite many reasons for denying charters. Some applicants have only vague notions of how to build or finance a school, and some make scant reference to the state curriculum. Although large charter operations have vast experience, some hometown applicants have none.

For applicants, "the challenge is to mesh dreams and reality," said Cathy Allen, a St. Mary's County school board member who is president-elect of the Maryland school boards association.

But charter advocates suspect other motives. School boards and superintendents see charter schools as a drain on students and funds and even as a challenge to their academic prestige, they say.

"Anytime you see a school board that is afraid of competition, they will invent any grounds that are needed to deny a charter application," said Nelson Smith, president of the D.C.-based National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

The charter school movement began in the late 1980s as a way to free public education from lockstep school system pedagogy and union rules. The first charter school opened in St. Paul, Minn., in 1992. Today, more than 4,600 charter schools serve 1.4 million of the nation's 56 million public students in 40 states and the District. Many charters have carved a niche with populations historically ill-served by public schools: poor and minority students and children with academic gifts or special needs.

Charter advocates criticize the 1998 Virginia law and 2003 Maryland law that give local school boards most or all of the power to grant charters. That's like "going to McDonald's, asking them to approve a Burger King across the street," said Don Soifer of the Lexington Institute, a conservative think tank in Arlington County.

Six of the seven charter schools in the Washington suburbs are thriving academically. The exception is Lincoln Charter School in Prince George's County, which last year fell short of state academic targets. D.C. charter schools have outperformed regular D.C. public schools, recent test scores show.

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