Interest in charter schools is growing in the Washington area, as student enrollment grows and a record number of schools are expected to apply to open in the District. But the charter fever growing in Maryland and Virginia is bumping up against state laws that give authority to traditional public school boards, which both applicants and experts say don't trust charters and shoot down their applications out of bias.
|Where the charters are|
|Public charter schools in D.C., Maryland and Virginia|
|District (93 campuses)|
|Anne Arundel County: 2|
|Baltimore County: 1|
|Baltimore City: 34|
|Frederick County: 1|
|Prince George's County: 5|
|St. Mary's County: 1|
|Albemarle County: 2|
|York County: 1|
"Relative to prior years, our information
sessions have been packed," said Brian Jones, chairman of the D.C. Public Charter School Board. "At least two applicants who have operated successful charter schools in other states are looking into the District -- that's exciting."
Applications are due Monday to the board, which oversees 52 charter schools that operate on 93 D.C. campuses and serve 27,660 students -- about 38 percent of city public school students. Last year, as enrollment climbed 6 percent, the charter board approved four new schools set to open in the fall. Among those is an elementary school from KIPP, a national network of college-prep charters known for impressive graduation rates.
The District's charter school board is an independent body that reviews and approves applications, unlike other jurisdictions where traditional school boards approve the applications.
"When the [traditional] board is the authorizer of charters, there's a real tension there. They're inclined to view charter school success as a zero-sum game," Jones said, pointing to the shared teachers and students.
The Center for Education Reform, a nonprofit charter advocacy group, ranked the District's charter school law as the nation's best with an A. Maryland received a D and Virginia an F.
"School boards see charter schools as competition -- they're not in favor of them," said Alison Consoletti, the nonprofit's research director.
The Maryland State Board of Education chastised Montgomery County's school board last week for its anti-charter bias when it overturned the county's rejection of two charter schools.
The state said Montgomery "failed to provide any rationale for its decision" against Global Gardens Public Charter School and that it was "very concerned" by biases among three board members. In a questionnaire of candidates for board re-election, then-President Patricia O'Neill said she was "skeptical about charter schools" and "worr[ies] about the draining of funds from MCPS."
Global Gardens board member Ashley Del Sole said she knew "we never had a chance" when applying to the Montgomery school board. "Their schools are among the best. It's the 'why fix what's not broken' mentality."
Only four charter schools are open in Virginia, with none in Northern Virginia. Arlington-based Imagine Schools, a nationwide charter operator with three locations in the District and three in Prince George's County, is in "the exploratory phase" of applying for a charter in Loudoun County, a spokeswoman said.
The last application the Fairfax County School Board received -- and rejected -- was in 2003. Board President Kathy Smith, who has served on the board since 2002, said her colleagues are "not out there looking for [charter applications] because that's not our job, but we are open to them, when we get them."
Five charter schools operate in Prince George's County, the second-largest concentration in Maryland to Baltimore City's 34. Among Maryland's lower-performing districts, "It's likely that they're open to alternative strategies," Consoletti said.
The Maryland state board gave Montgomery 90 days to revisit the charter applications, which delighted Del Sole. "I think the time of charter schools is here."