Charter schools' big challenge: finding a home

For new charter schools, such as Cesar Chavez Public Charter High School for Public Policy in Washington, the hardest challenges are often the unexpected ones.

Principal Irasema Salcido says, for example, that she never anticipated that the hunt for classroom space or a building for her students would take up so much of her time. "I'm doing my part, and I will be held accountable for the performance of my students. But we are a public school - and who is being held accountable for finding a simple home for a public school?" she says.

Charter schools educate some 3,600 students in the District - about 5 percent of public school enrollment. At least 7,000 students are expected to enroll next year. But of the 19 charter schools currently operating, only five have long-term leases on classroom space; four - including Cesar Chavez - have yet to secure space for next year's classes.

Charter supporters say district officials have been slow to implement a 1995 federal law that requires the District to give priority to charter schools in the disposition of unused school buildings.

"It's a war. They will not make it easy and they hardly make it possible at all for us to get buildings," says Robert Cane, executive director of Friends of Choice and Urban Schools, a nonprofit group that helps D.C. charter startups. The D.C. subcommittee of the US House Committee on Appropriations is holding hearings on this issue today.

Similar concerns are raised by many involved in the charter-school experiment. The high cost of facilities is a leading obstacle to starting charters, according to the US Department of Education. In addition, public agencies are often slow to recognize that charters are part of the public system.

"This is a concept that is new to many people. Some zoning boards consider that charter schools are private. Some municipalities are calling them commercial," says Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, a Washington-based advocacy group.

Five years ago, there were only a handful of charter schools in the US; this year, there were 1,205, with 673 starting in the 1998-99 school year.

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