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Advocacy group gives D.C. high mark for charter school laws

By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 13, 2010; A03

The District ranks high, Virginia low and Maryland last in a new ranking of charter school laws that seeks to promote growth of the independently operated public schools as well as tighter oversight of charter applicants and low performers.

The ranking from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, to be released Wednesday, diverges from other pro-charter analyses, reflecting debate within the charter movement over accountability measures for schools that operate largely outside public school systems. The debate is significant because President Obama's administration is preparing to pick among states seeking a share of the $4 billion Race to the Top school reform fund. One criterion is whether state laws establish "successful conditions for high-performing charter schools and other innovative schools."

The five-year-old alliance, based in the District, has received backing from the Walton Family Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other charter advocates. The Joyce Foundation funded the ranking.

"State legislation really sets the bar for the charter school movement," said Nelson Smith, president and chief executive of the alliance. "When states combine equitable resources, real autonomy and tough accountability, charter schools flourish and meet the high expectations of parents and policymakers."

Minnesota placed first among 39 states and the District. Eleven states do not have laws permitting charter schools.

It was little surprise that the District, with a fast-growing charter sector of more than 28,000 students, placed second. The alliance cited the 1996 D.C. law as a model for autonomy, funding equity and facilities support. Virginia, with only a handful of charter schools, placed 35th. Maryland, with about three dozen, was 40th. The alliance said the state's 2003 law lacks solid quality control measures and fails to promote strong and effective processes for authorizing new charters.

"We recognize there are weaknesses in Maryland's public charter school program," said William Reinhard, a spokesman for the Maryland State Department of Education. But, he added: "We're fortunate in that our charter schools have been for the most part very successful. We haven't had a lot of turnover in charter schools that some states have."

The Center for Education Reform, another pro-charter organization in the District, has ranked state charter laws for more than a decade. Its latest ranking somewhat overlaps the alliance's -- both place Minnesota, the District and California in their top three -- but there are significant differences. The alliance ranks Georgia fourth, Colorado fifth and Massachusetts sixth. The center places them 14th, seventh and 18th, respectively.

Jeanne Allen, the center's president, said the alliance puts "a much bigger premium on government regulation of the charter movement." Allen said that her organization better reflects the point of view of "rank and file schools that deal with authorizers and bureaucracy every day."

Todd Ziebarth, an alliance vice president, said Allen held "an outdated view."

Without taking sides, Education Secretary Arne Duncan issued a supportive statement in an alliance news release. "We're encouraged that the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools supports creation of better charter school laws as models of learning," Duncan said, "and we encourage authorizers to hold charters accountable for student performance."

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