Charting a Tough Course ; Charter Schools May Be Public, but Many Are Facing Vigorous Opposition Even as They Make Key Inroads

Article excerpt

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. …