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Local: Education

Charter schools expand in D.C., but stall in Maryland and Virginia

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Photo - Students are shown at the Achievement Prep Academy Public Charter School, in Southeast Washington D.C. Forty-one percent of the District's students now attend charter schools. (Examiner file)
Students are shown at the Achievement Prep Academy Public Charter School, in Southeast Washington D.C. Forty-one percent of the District's students now attend charter schools. (Examiner file)
Local,Education,Lisa Gartner

The popularity of charter schools in the District is sometimes perceived as a fad, but know this: Experts are predicting that more students will attend public charter schools than DC Public Schools within a matter of years.

Forty-one percent of public school students in D.C. now attend charters. Last school year, 31,562 students attended District charters, up 7 percent from the year before, while DCPS enrollment decreased slightly.

Nearly 15,000 names are on waiting lists for admission to the city's 93 charter school campuses this fall.

Charter schools by the numbers
While Maryland's charter school law is tough, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools says 38 have popped up in Baltimore City because of its supportive superintendent.
D.C. 93
Maryland 49
 Prince George's County 7  
 Anne Arundel County 2  
 Baltimore City 38  
 Baltimore County 1  
 St. Mary's County 1  
Virginia 4
 Albermarle County 2  
 Richmond 1  
 York County 1  
Source: Maryland State Department of Education, Virginia Department of Education

Roughly four new charters are approved each year by an independent board. And DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson is seeking the power to create charter schools too.

Meanwhile, Montgomery County is preparing to open its first charter school this fall, an eighth school is opening in Prince George's County, and a group of Fairfax County Public Schools educators is trying to get approval for the first charter school in Northern Virginia.

What once seemed a fad might appear to be the new normal.

But the popularity enjoyed by charters in the District is evading its neighbors in Maryland and Virginia, as national experts say the states' charter school laws are among the worst in the nation.

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the largest nonprofit charter advocacy group in the country, ranked Maryland as No. 41 among 42 states with laws governing charter schools, while Virginia fell in at No. 37.

Maryland and Virginia are two of just five states that give the final say in authorizing charter schools to local school boards, with local boards often viewing charter schools as competition to traditional school systems, in terms of both funding and reputation. "In Maryland it has more to do with the [teachers] unions' influence on the Democrats, whereas Virginia's school boards are very strong," said Todd Ziebarth, a vice president of the NAPCS.

Local charter operators agree: "It's kind of like we're a stepchild they don't want, or they're the old crazy aunt, you know?" said John Winn, a board member of Richmond's Patrick Henry School of Science and Arts, the only charter school approved in Virginia in the last five years.

There are only four charter schools in Virginia. The state has approved the application for the Fairfax Leadership Academy, a year-round high school. Now, the local school board is scheduled to decide the charter's fate with a vote this fall.

Eric Welch, a teacher and the executive director of the Fairfax Leadership Academy, said the school board has been cooperative with feedback. But the board never approved a charter school before, and board members' lack of experience has slowed the process as Welch tries to get the school open by fall of 2013.

"The speed at which we're doing this is very much a molasses pace," Welch said. "My attitude as a teacher is there are kids we want to reach and it would be nice if it went quicker, but I understand it's a learning process our school district is going through."

Community Montessori Public Charter School will open this fall in Montgomery County, after originally being rejected by the county school board. Maryland overturned the local board's decision, questioning whether Montgomery school board members harbored biases against charter schools.

The Kensington school received nearly 247 applications for 70 preschool seats and will ultimately expand to older grades.

Dana Tofig, a spokesman for Montgomery County Public Schools, said the board will continue to consider charter school applications as they come.

Still, with the laws the way they are, few are expecting Community Montessori or Fairfax Leadership Academy to herald an era of charter schools in Montgomery and Fairfax counties.

"I could see over the next 10 years, three or four, but not 20 or 30," Welch said. "Fairfax is a very good school district, and the community members are by and far very happy with the traditional schools."

lgartner@washingtonexaminer.com

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