THE CHARTER school movement is taking off in the nation's capital, if preliminary figures released last week are any guide. Charter school enrollment nearly doubled this year, attracting almost one in 11 children in the public school system. The growth is no fluke. It reflects an understandable hunger for alternatives to the city's traditional -- and troubled -- public schools on the part of parents and students. The charter school record is not flawless, however.
Of the two agencies legally empowered to authorize start-up schools, the appointed D.C. Public Charter School Board is earning a good reputation for thoroughly vetting, approving and monitoring its applicants. The other authorizing panel, the elected Board of Education -- as in so many of its endeavors -- is drawing bad reviews and has compiled a track record to match.
The Marcus Garvey Public Charter School was a fiasco on both the management and fiscal fronts. So was the Young Technocrats Math and Science Laboratory Public Charter School. Both schools, which had to be shut down, bore the elected school board's seal of approval. Kwame Nkrumah International is another troubling situation. It applied to the elected board, received provisional approval and opened on Sept. 17. The school was told to shut down after a school board panel, following weeks of delay, declined its application. Now 270 children must find new places to go to school. National and local charter school watchdogs contend that the elected school board is hurting the charter movement nationwide.
All D.C. charter schools operate with public tax dollars but independent of the public school bureaucracy. But are two chartering authorities necessary in the District? Congress, following the pattern established in D.C. Council legislation, authorized the elected school board and a mayor-appointed board (drawn from a list supplied by the U.S. Department of Education) to grant charters. But there is no great imperative to have the elected board in the chartering business. The council's original bill, sponsored by then council member William Lightfoot and Kathy Patterson envisioned a single chartering authority. The inclusion of the elected board was a last-minute political accommodation -- and a mistake. One charter-granting authority is enough. It should be the panel that has demonstrated it knows what it is doing: the D.C. Charter School Board.