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Politics of Charter Schools Makes Strange Bedfellows

The struggles of charter schools in the nation’s capital reflects what they’re up against nationwide.

Washington, D.C., charter schools are pulling 10 percent of the city’s student population. That comes down to about 7,000 kids, a number that is expected to go up to 12,000 by next year. D.C. students are predominantly African American, and many are at high risk for dropping out. Yet there’s some evidence that more students are now staying in District schools or moving out of parochial schools their parents can ill afford.

What’s the problem? For starters, innovative charter schools can threaten the turf and sway of traditional educators and administrators. In D.C., the debate has reached fever pitch because of the implosion of the elected school board. In 1996, the GOP-controlled Congress established a second chartering authority in the District, in part because the elected board had been so lax in authorizing and evaluating charter applications. Many D.C. charter schools are strapped for space – one operates on the second floor of a struggling shopping mall – yet school-system administrators have been loathe to sell or lease empty classroom buildings to the upstarts.

Glenda Partee, who serves on the board of the Integrated Design and Electronics Academy Public Charter School, says the D.C. old guard suffers from a lack of vision. When Partee and other parents started an intensive foreign-language program as a pilot school in pre-charter days, she says, it was “too fragile to exist without support.” Now there are two foreign-language charter schools.

Or consider Next Step Public Charter School, which is geared towards pregnant and parenting teens. Next Step opened at a time when this focus was being phased out of other District public schools.

The powers-that-be in Massachusetts have turned the debate acrimonious in this state as well. A recent Boston Globe article includes this typical comment from a high school teacher: “I’m a foe of charter schools. They’re essentially leeches, parasites, and they’re unaccountable to the people who pay the bills – the taxpayers.”

Promoting charter schools is “one of the most un-PC things you can do,” according to Linda Brown, director of the Massachusetts Charter School Resource Center. “There are factions in any state that tweak and change the law to make it harder and harder, especially as charter schools become more and more successful.”

This makes for strange political bedfellows. It was a Republican Congressman, Ernest Istook, Jr., of Oklahoma, who started looking into why the charter school stuck in a shopping mall had been stymied in its efforts to buy a D.C. school building. In Minnesota, the first state to authorize charters, the law was passed and signed by Democrats, but nationally conservatives have seized on the issue. Unlike Vice President Al Gore, who relies on teachers’ unions for support in his run for president, Texas Gov. George W. Bush is very vocal in his support of charter schools. The presumptive GOP presidential nominee has proposed $3 billion in federal loan guarantees to help such schools with operating costs.

But even if Republican supporters have stolen educational empathy from the liberal agenda, they don’t want to pay for it. Most charter schools remain “under-funded,” notes Jack West of the Alternative Schools Network in Chicago. “It’s like telling them to run forward, then putting a weight on their legs.”

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