Charting a tough course

Charter schools may be public, but many are facing vigorous opposition even as they make key inroads.

Some call them "free private schools" or public schools with a mission statement. Often, the charter schools popping up across the United States don't look like schools at all.

You'll find them in a mall or converted townhouse, in a museum or the basement of a community center - no gymnasium, no media center, and no phalanx of administrators. Fewer than 1 percent of students attend charter schools. In the $300 billion-a-year, bureaucratic world that is public education, they're still barely a blip in the budget.

Yet, in some cities, charters are reaching a critical mass that's getting harder to dismiss. Charters now educate nearly 10 percent of students in Washington, D.C.; 13.5 percent in Kansas City, Mo.; and 7.5 percent in Trenton, N.J. Traditional public schools find themselves competing for students, teachers, and facilities. It's a competition that could change the face of public education.

At issue is whether public schools must be managed by a central office. The core idea in the charter-school movement is that schools do better when they have a focus and are accountable for meeting goals rather than complying with regulations.

The bid to convert Washington's Paul Junior High School to a charter school is a textbook case of how this movement is challenging powerful assumptions about the nature of public education.

A different kind of charter

It didn't rattle the system when founders of the School for Arts In Learning (SAIL) Public Charter School proposed a new program to teach youngsters with learning difficulties. Or when the Maya Angelou Public Charter School developed an extended curriculum for kids who had been involved with the criminal-justice system. Or when the Cesar Chavez Public Charter School for Public Policy proposed a new school in space over a mall.

But when the principal and two-thirds of the staff at Paul Junior High School submitted a bid to become a charter school - and keep their building - that was another matter. Paul was an established school and a successful one. Its exit from the control of the District of Columbia Public Schools would be noticed.

When Arlene Ackerman accepted the job of superintendent of DCPS in 1998, she knew she was taking on one of the most challenging urban school systems in the US. Nearly 90 percent of high school juniors were scoring "below basic" in mathematics on national tests; 70 percent in reading. Schools often opened late, and the roofs leaked. Phone calls weren't answered, money was disappearing, and no one had an accurate count of students in the system.

"I had been told it was going to be a difficult district. What I did not expect was the depth and breadth of the educational crisis," she said in an interview with the Monitor last July.

As she saw it, the problem wasn't the students. It was "an adult problem," and the solution was to fix the system. She set up a 90-day fast-track procedure to get rid of ineffective teachers and retooled the central office to be more responsive.

At the same time, she worried that the rapid growth of charter schools could undercut her efforts to restore faith in the system. The district has one of the nation's most liberal charter laws. Ackerman didn't want too many kids - or schools - abandoning the system before her reforms had a chance.

"There's a reason charter schools have sprouted up in the numbers they have in the D.C. community," she said. "We have to work at getting public confidence back."

In this effort, Paul Junior High School could have been one of her brightest assets. Its soft-spoken principal, Cecile Middleton, was a 40-year veteran of D.C. public schools and had a reputation for improving every school she touched. The classrooms and corridors at Paul are calm and focused.

But she'd had it with the gutters that never got cleaned, the paychecks that came late, the lost documents that had to be rushed to the downtown offices repeatedly. "We get at least one or two calls a day for work that has already been submitted. I was spending incalculable amounts of my time dealing with the central office, and that's time I wasn't spending helping children," she says.

A neighborhood minister offered seminars on how to start up charter schools. Three years ago she began the necessary steps.

The proposal she submitted to the District of Columbia Public Charter School Board - one of two chartering agencies in the district - promised to provide each student with an Individual Education Compact. Teaching would be built around mathematics, science, history, English, and geography. Students would be required to master a foreign language. Parental involvement was built in, and students are to have access to extended-day learning.

Her first effort failed. Last spring, the proposal was accepted.

But the biggest obstacle still lay ahead: keeping the building. When Paul first applied to lease its school building, the request was denied on the grounds that it was needed for other programs. Even before the charter proposal was accepted, DCPS had signaled that Paul's building could be needed for a new special-education complex. Later, the superintendent proposed siting a new magnet program in the building. This month, DCPS proposed sharing the building with the new charter school, something Principal Middleton rejected.

Last week, the D.C. financial control board stepped into the dispute and awarded the building to Paul, a decision that prompted the resignations of 6 of 7 members of the D.C. Emergency Education Board of Trustees, which helps the financial control board oversee the school system.

A moratorium on conversions

At the same time, D.C. passed emergency legislation to put a moratorium on such conversions.

"It's important to do all this very carefully. The need is to develop a policy that makes it possible for a public school to convert to a charter but also protects parents and students who don't want to go to the charter school," said control-board chairman Alice Rivlin in comments to the Monitor. "I believe the public school system should have some central management and coherence, but charter schools preserve an alternative and ensure competition."

Her decision became grist for new opposition in the community. Critics worried that neighborhood kids would not have guaranteed access to the school in the future.

"Paul was turned from a really failing school to one of our bright lights by Cecile Middleton," says Delabian Rice-Thurston, executive director of Parents United, a nonprofit group that advocates for D.C. public schools. "Parents want guaranteed access; that's why they bought a house in the neighborhood. Now they feel as if they're losing the access they expected."

"It also makes it very difficult for our superintendent," she adds. "If you're trying to invest in upgrading a school and the next thing you know you're losing the school, in the future you're not going to get the benefit of the test-score increases or anything else."

Charter supporters insist that opponents are missing a key point: Charter schools are still public schools, they're just not controlled by the same public system.

"The real issue is, can we preserve public education without it being our highest priority to preserve the current delivery system," says Robert Cane, executive director of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, a nonprofit group that coordinates the activities of charters.

"The way DCPS has chosen to deal with charter schools isn't the only way. How much better if we were talking with Mrs. Ackerman about what schools would be best to convert ... and which wouldn't," he says.

More than a quarter-million students now attend some 1,700 charter schools, according to the US Department of Education. Thirty-six states and D.C. have legislation allowing charter schools.

Moreover, the charter movement continues to win bipartisan support. President Clinton is asking for $175 million in the 2001 budget to expand the development of charter schools. And presidential candidates are pushing the concept. Vice President Al Gore pledges to triple the number of charter schools, while GOP rival George W. Bush proposes $300 million in new federal funding to leverage $3 billion in private loans for new charters.

Who decides?

Other states have had easier experiences with conversions. "In most cases, the conversion of a public school to a charter school is not a big issue. It's general practice in California, where about 1 in 4 charters are existing public schools," says Alex Medler, an analyst with the US Department of Education. "There are several states that have language that says a conversion school should have demonstration of support from the community. The language is typically left open and vague, and that's probably good. New Hampshire has a community-wide vote, and they've had [no charters]."

*E-mail chaddockg@csps.com

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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