Nonprofit to offer practical advice to D.C. charter schools

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Charter schools will have a new place to turn for advice next year when members of the D.C. Public Charter School Board start a nonprofit organization that will research how the schools can best be run.

The group will focus on finances and governance and is being set up by Chairman Thomas A. Nida, who steps down from the Charter School Board in February, and Dora Marcus, who was on the board until last month. Both reached their two-term limits.

"There's a lot of focus with academic achievement for schools," Nida said. "There's not nearly as much work done helping establish best practices for financial management and governance."

The Charter School Board has been criticized for tending to shut down charters for financial reasons rather than for academic ones. Nida said that's because it was easier to catch financial problems early and that it underscored the need for more research about how to evaluate charter schools' finances.

The group doesn't have a name or a launch date, but it will begin in the first quarter of next year, the founders said. Nida said he has talked to foundations that would be interested in supporting the research group, which will be legally and financially separate from the Charter School Board. Marcus will lead the group; Nida will serve on it.

Education advocates consider D.C.'s laws among the most favorable to charter schools in the country.

This year, 38 percent of the city's public school students attend charter schools, and the Center for Education Reform, a charter advocate, ranks the District's charter law first in the nation.

But groups that provide practical support to D.C. charter schools have to some extent lagged. There are organizations that lobby on behalf of the schools and others that help new charters find facility space, but advocates say charters could use help in running effectively.

"There's a huge need for high-quality intermediate agencies" that can advise charters, said Andrew Rotherham, co-founder of Education Sector, a think tank.

Other comparable national organizations agreed there is room for more research and discussion.

"Within the charter sector, the uneven quality of authorizing is a problem and leads to an uneven quality of charter schools," said Greg Richmond, president of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. Although he wasn't familiar with the plans for the District organization, he said he didn't know any other groups that were so intimately tied to a local charter board.

Nida dismissed any concerns, saying that the research and experience of the D.C. charter board could be helpful to others doing similar work.

"We've basically functioned as lab rats here in D.C.," he said.

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