Md., Va. dip toes in charter school waters, as D.C. student numbers soar

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 5, 2009

The number of charter schools in the District has skyrocketed over the past decade, and charters are on track to claim 38 percent of public school students in the city. The charter scene is a comparative desert in Virginia and Maryland, but that might be changing.

At least two applications are in the works in Montgomery County, which has no charter schools. A charter school that has been approved in Prince George's County is scheduled to open next fall, bringing the total there to five. Although there are no charter schools or applications pending in Northern Virginia, according to the state Department of Education, the subject was a major topic of conversation during the gubernatorial campaign, where both candidates expressed support for them.

The laws governing charter schools vary by jurisdiction. In the District, prospective charter schools apply to a public charter school board that is independent of the D.C. school system. In Maryland and Virginia, applications must be approved by school boards, which are often disinclined to do so.

School officials cite many reasons for rejecting proposals. Some applicants don't understand the practicalities of building and financing a school. Others pay little attention to the jurisdiction's curriculum. The quality of charter school applicants can vary widely, with experienced nationwide operators who've opened dozens of schools and local groups with little to no administrative experience.

Charter school advocates say that a system that requires prospective schools to apply to local boards is inherently stacked against them.

"It's like asking Burger King to put a McDonald's franchise in their parking lot. You're asking someone who has a monopoly on education in the district to open up to competition," said Joni Berman, a former president of the Maryland Charter School Network, who now works as an independent consultant.

Berman is working with a group in Montgomery that plans to submit an application by March. Global Garden Public Charter School is being spearheaded by a reading instructor and a school counselor who work in the county's public school system.

"There are a lot of things that Montgomery County does really well, but the schools are really big and we'd like to try a different model of educational excellence," said Janet Sluzenski, the elementary school counselor. The group is aiming to open a school with kindergarten through eighth grade in fall 2011. It would have an International Baccalaureate program and an extended school year.

Montgomery has had one previous charter application, which was rejected in 2002.

Virginia has three charter schools, none in Northern Virginia. A fourth will open in Richmond next fall. An application is in the works for a charter school in the southern part of the state, said Charles Pyle, a spokesman for the state Department of Education.

During Virginia's gubernatorial campaign, candidate Robert F. McDonnell (R) said he would create a charter advisory board to help applicants shape successful proposals and establish an appeals panel for those rejected. Democratic candidate R. Creigh Deeds also expressed support for charter schools but said that ultimate authority for them rests with local school boards, a position shared by the state teachers association.

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