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Thriving in District, Charter Schools Are Shunned 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.

In New Orleans, the charter movement took off after Hurricane Katrina swamped the city's low-performing schools and created an opening for new ideas. In the District, charter schools have flourished in part because of congressional intervention in a school system beset by revolving-door leadership, political conflicts and persistently low scores. A 1996 federal law created an impartial board to grant D.C. charters, separate from the city's school board.

The Center for Education Reform, a charter advocate based in the District, ranks the D.C. law second in the nation for power and autonomy afforded to charter-school applicants. It ranks Maryland's charter law 33rd among 41 state laws, and Virginia's 38th. Teachers unions and education lobbyists have battled charter-school legislation and sought to limit charter school autonomy.

In Virginia, a local school board's decision is final. Until 2004, state law did not even require school boards to read the applications.

"If you can't work it out with the local jurisdiction, you can't have a charter" in Virginia, said Roy Gamse, executive vice president of Imagine Schools, an Arlington-based network of 72 charter schools.

Maryland's law allows applicants to appeal to the state. The Maryland State Board of Education has stung school boards in Prince George's and St. Mary's counties by reversing their decisions against charter schools. The charter movement has a foothold in Baltimore, which has 25 charter schools. Elsewhere, applicants say they have found the process akin to fighting a lawsuit.

In 2005, the Anne Arundel County school board rejected a charter for the Knowledge Is Power Program, one of the most successful charter-school operators in the nation, for fear of losing students. Two weeks later, amid public outcry, the board reversed itself.

But the school closed in 2007 in an acrimonious dispute over classroom space. It was the first time in 13 years a KIPP school had shut down. "Clearly, we weren't welcome," said Steve Mancini, a KIPP spokesman.

In some cases, local boards have rejected charter-school applicants that appeared to have merit, or for reasons that seemed arbitrary.

The Prince George's school board refused to consider a charter application in 2004 on the grounds that the school system was not ready to accept applications.

In 2007, the Calvert school board denied a charter for "many major and minor deficiencies." The state school board read the same application, found it "thorough and well-developed" and asked the parties to renegotiate. The local board refused.

The Maryland State Board of Education has chided local boards for thwarting charter school applicants through unnecessary deadlines and delays.

The Montgomery school board rejected its only charter applicant in 2002, before the state charter law was enacted, saying that there was no money and that the county's disadvantaged students were already well-served.

But County Council member Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty) plans to revive the issue, saying the county's persistent racial achievement disparities are reason enough. Montgomery Superintendent Jerry D. Weast said he would be open to a charter school network with proven results, such as KIPP.

"High quality is what we were looking for," Weast said.

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