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  •   Candidates Seek Charter School Limits

     
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    By Jay Mathews
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, August 19, 1998; Page B08

    The rapid growth of public charter schools led some candidates for D.C. mayor yesterday to call for limits on the number of taxpayer-funded independent schools to prevent too much of a drain on the regular school system.

    The most outspoken candidate on the issue was D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who called for a moratorium on new charter schools while officials study the impact of the 19 independent schools scheduled to operate this school year.

    "I find the whole movement towards charter school in the District to be very troubling," he said.

    Mayoral candidate Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7), who chairs the council's education committee, said he shares Evans's "concern about the proliferation of charter schools" but thinks it would be better to reduce the maximum number of new schools allowed each year -- from the current 20 -- rather than cut them off completely.

    Two other candidates in the Sept. 15 Democratic primary, D.C. Council member Harold Brazil (At Large) and former D.C. chief financial officer Anthony A. Williams, expressed more support for charter schools, although they emphasized the need to monitor their development and keep them from hurting the education of children in the regular schools. Statehood Party mayoral candidate John Gloster has long warned against too rapid growth in charter schools, and yesterday suggested a limit of five new schools a year.

    All candidates for D.C. mayor have put heavy emphasis on improving the city's public schools. The charter school issue has grown in importance since the principal and staff of Paul Junior High School, a well-regarded regular public school, announced that they wanted to escape the red tape of the D.C. school bureaucracy and become a charter school in the fall of 1999.

    Paul Junior High is one of 13 schools that have applied to the D.C. Public Charter School Board for charter status in 1999. Several more so-far-undisclosed charter proposals have been submitted to the D.C. Board of Education. Only 3,500 of the District's 76,000 public school students are expected to be in charter schools this year, but their numbers are growing faster than in any other city in the country, Evans said.

    Evans said he was disturbed to hear that the Duke Ellington School of the Arts was considering asking for charter status. Both Chavous and Evans said they were distressed by the decision of the D.C. Committee on Public Education, an organization that had worked for years to improve public schools, to rename itself the D.C. Public Charter School Resource Center and devote itself to helping the independent schools.

    Charter schools are public schools that operate with public money but are independent from the central school administration. Supporters say they will offer parents a choice in public education and force traditional schools to improve to avoid losing students. Opponents say such schools will draw the most involved parents and most motivated students from the regular system.

    Nelson Smith, executive director of the D.C. Public Charter School Board, said the call for a moratorium to keep charter schools from draining resources is "premature." He said that reports of as many as 100 teachers leaving the regular system to teach in charter schools are exaggerated and that the board is working with D.C. school officials to make certain no regular schools are hurt.

    Evans said that, if elected mayor, he will attempt to persuade Congress to change the charter school law to keep any new schools from being approved in 1999. Otherwise, he said, the public school system is in danger of splitting in two, with "those families better able to navigate the system" ending up in charter schools and families less equipped to demand better schools for their children left in the regular schools.

    Betty Fenwick-North, executive director of the Preparatory School of the District of Columbia, a private school seeking charter status in 1999, said she is not luring teachers from the regular schools. "They have either been downsized or their job abolished," she said, "or we are getting retired teachers who want to go back to work but not back to the hassle that they were put through in the D.C. system."

    Robert H. Crosby, president of the Richard Milburn Academy, one of the charter schools opening this year, said his staff is recruiting students from the D.C. schools who were the most difficult to teach and the most in danger of dropping out. But he said he supports the idea of slowing the creation of new charter schools in order to give each new school the best chance of success.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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