Charter schools appeal is won

Prince George's ordered to speed review process

`We were uplifted by this vote'

State tells county to cut application time in half

August 10, 2004|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

The Maryland Board of Education has ordered the Prince George's County school board to expedite its review of a charter school application, a move that charter proponents hope will break a logjam in one of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s top education initiatives.

Acting on an appeal from a group attempting to establish a charter in Fort Washington, the state board ruled that a lengthy delay in considering the application was "an effective denial" of the group's plans to open the Potomac Charter School this fall.

The state board cut in half the 120 days stipulated in state law for Prince George's to review the application and issue a decision.

Charter schools are publicly funded but operated by authorized groups independent of the existing public school structure.

After heavy lobbying from Ehrlich, the 2003 General Assembly passed legislation authorizing charter schools in Maryland.

But more than a year later, only one, Monocacy Valley Montessori School in Frederick County, is operating with the approval of a local school board.

"We were uplifted by this vote," said Deborah D. Driver, president of the Potomac Charter School parents' committee. "All charter proponents in the state needed to see a vast majority of the state board agree with us."

Driver said she believed the school, planned for 56 children in kindergarten through eighth grade, could be open before the end of the first semester. "We were ready to open August 23," said Driver who has a son set for third grade in the new school. If approved, it would be the first charter in Prince George's.

Joni Gardner, president of the Maryland Charter School Network, described the state board's decision -- which was issued last week -- as "very positive."

"They came out with a clear statement that the intent of the law is to open charter schools and not drag our feet for another three years," Gardner said.

When the charter legislation was passed in the 11th hour of the 2003 legislature, critics complained that designating local school boards as the sole authorizers of charters had the effect of putting the fox in charge of the henhouse. Many charters are started by parents who are unhappy with public schools and the boards that set policy for them.

"So far we've seen some good systems and some not quite so supportive," said Gardner.

Baltimore City has refused to review an application from City Neighbors Charter School in Northeast Baltimore, while two applications were rejected recently in Harford County and one in Howard County, she said.

The charter groups and public boards also are arguing over the level of funding for the schools.

In Prince George's, Gardner said, officials have proposed spending $3,899 per pupil in charter schools, while the cost for each student in regular public education is $8,960. The new law requires funding for charters to be "commensurate" with funding for public schools.

In June, Ehrlich, state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and other Maryland officials happily accepted a $3.8 million federal check for charter start-ups -- the first installment of a three-year, $13 million U.S. Department of Education commitment. Driver said she expects the new Potomac Charter School to receive some of those funds.

Dunbar Brooks, vice president of the state board, said members were concerned "that the procedure in this case could have been more expeditious," but he said the board would consider appeals "one case at a time."

"Clearly, we want the spirit of the law to be adhered to," Brooks said.

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