Montgomery County school officials to reconsider charter school applications

By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 30, 2011; 9:46 PM

A group of Montgomery County parents and education advocates poured hundreds of hours into a 350-page application for a charter school. Their dream: Global Garden Public Charter School, a primary and middle school with fewer than 420 students and an emphasis on foreign languages. The students would be a mix of the county's ethnic groups and economic levels.

"It was going to be like a 21st-century Norman Rockwell painting," said David Borinsky, president of the Maryland Charter School Network.

But this was Montgomery, home to one of the nation's highest-achieving school districts - one that has never had a charter school. And this was Maryland, a state criticized by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools for having some of the weakest laws in the United States for establishing and governing charter schools.

Last spring there was a review process, followed by a 45-minute meeting between reviewers and the applicants. Montgomery Superintendent Jerry D. Weast followed with a critical memo to the county school board that raised questions about academics, facilities and funding. Days later, the board voted to not approve the application.

"And that was it. After months of trying, that was it," said Ashley Del Sole, a mother of two who is on the Global Garden board. "They would use words like 'sufficient' or 'insufficient,' which are very vague and subjective. . . . We felt like we were not given due process."

The group appealed the decision to the Maryland State Board of Education, and last week the board asked Montgomery school officials to give the application a second look and more fully articulate why such a school would not succeed.

The explanation the local board has given up to this point "is vague and, at best, confusing," the state board wrote in the opinion released last week. The state board also asked the Montgomery school board to revisit a denied charter school application from Crossway Community, a nonprofit organization in Kensington that has worked with young children for about 20 years.

Montgomery schools spokesman Dana Tofig said the county board was reviewing the decisions but will provide the state board with written statements explaining its actions. There are no plans to change the decisions.

The county school system is also reviewing its charter school application process to ensure that it is efficient and follows the law. Plans are underway to set up a Web site explaining that process, Tofig said.

Yet charter school advocates say the state board decision does not move Montgomery - a neighbor to the energetic charter school system in the District - much closer to welcoming charters.

In other counties, some charter schools have 10 students waiting for every open spot, Borinsky said. "Why is Montgomery County not interested in something that so many parents in other counties are interested in?" he asked. "The school board and the school system have an obligation to take this seriously."

Public charter schools, which have the enthusiastic support of the Obama administration, have popped up across the country, mainly in low-performing school districts in need of major education reforms. The District has more than 50 charter schools, and Baltimore has more than three dozen. But the charter school movement has yet to take hold in the Maryland or Northern Virginia suburbs, where there are fewer calls for such major reforms.

"At some point, there is a worry that once you have one, then you will have five, then 10," said state Sen. Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore), who has worked on education legislation. "But at the end of the day, you want good schools, no matter what kind of schools they are."

The state board enforces the 2003 state law that allows charter schools to be among the publicly funded offerings in Maryland, but it does not have the power to approve applications on its own.

In last week's decision about Global Garden, the board went a step further than usual and suggested that some Montgomery school board members have biases against charter schools, an issue that came up during last year's board elections.

"Members of a local board have a duty to evaluate public charter school applications based on the sufficiency of their contents, and not on the board member's own personal view of whether charter schools should exist," the board wrote.

Michael A. Durso of Silver Spring was one of the county board members singled out. He said it was an unfair statement, especially since he sits on the board of a charter high school in the District. Durso said approving a charter school is difficult, particularly during tough budget times.

"To the observer, it probably might look a little easier than it ends up being. There's a considerable amount of work involved," he said. Although the county does not have a charter school, he said, "that doesn't mean it won't in the future."

Joseph Hawkins was the president of a group that formed in the late 1990s to submit one of the county's first charter school applications. Plans for Jaime Escalante Public Charter School were denied twice. Hawkins now sits on the Global Garden board.

"Montgomery County has always said the right things, like, 'We support charter schools,' 'We would approve a charter school if the right one came along,' " Hawkins said. "Okay, then give us some clues to what the right ones are."

© 2011 The Washington Post Company