A new crop of D.C. charter school hopefuls learns the ropes

By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 14, 2010; 8:17 PM

The next crop of would-be D.C. charter school operators gathered in a gray conference room on 14th Street one night last week, more than 30 hopeful men and women, each with his or her own pitch.

"Hello," began one woman. "I am a founder of Believe Charter School. We believe every child in D.C. has the right to a high-quality, first-class education."

"Hi," another woman began, offering her idea. "I'm soft-spoken. Sorry. I believe it's important to prepare kids adequately and empower them."

"I am a psychologist," said an older man in a pinstripe suit, "and each day I go home depressed because I see so many 10th- , 11th- and 12th-graders who can't read."

The meeting was convened by the District's public charter school board to explain the application process for opening a charter school, a list of requirements that fits into an hour-long PowerPoint presentation.

The District can approve up to 20 new charters each year. Of 13 applications last year, four schools were conditionally approved to open in fall 2011. In general, business is booming.

The city has 96 charter schools, which enroll more than 28,000 children, or about 38 percent of public school students, the largest percentage of any school system in the nation.

Essentially entrepreneurial ventures, charters receive public school money but have a higher degree of autonomy than traditional public schools in how they teach and operate.

The theory is that public education should be a competitive marketplace of choices.

Charters are supposed to encourage innovation, provide parents with a viable option to traditional public schools and spur struggling schools to improve.

More than two decades into the experiment, though, their academic results vary widely across the country and in the District, which pro-charter groups say has one of the best laws governing charters in the country.

Although some charter schools, notably the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP Academy, perform exceedingly well, standardized reading and math scores among charter students as a whole remained relatively flat this year.

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