Appeal filed on city charter school

Baltimore parents group asks state to intervene in review of application

August 11, 2004|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

A group of Northeast Baltimore parents that feels it has been thwarted in its attempt to start a charter school has asked the state school board to intervene in the local decision-making process.

The appeal to the State Board of Education is the second this summer, signaling a growing frustration among parents and community groups who see local school boards as roadblocks to opening charter schools.

"I had been hoping to work within the system," said Bobbi MacDonald, founder of City Neighbors Charter School. "When I realized that wasn't going to work, I said, `Let's appeal.'"

City Neighbors filed a formal appeal Monday, contending that city school officials have delayed the review of its application to open a charter school in the fall of next year.

The appeal follows a state board ruling last week that handed a victory to a Prince George's County charter group by requiring the county school board to expedite its review of a charter school application filed in April.

The City Neighbors appeal differs from the one in Prince George's because it also asks the state to overturn a limit on the number of new charter schools that can open in the city in the next four years. The state limits new charter start-ups to three through 2008. If that is overturned, the city school board could come under pressure to approve more charter schools.

Charter schools are publicly funded but operate independent of the existing public school structure. The schools are often run by parents or a nonprofit group.

After heavy lobbying by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the 2003 General Assembly passed a law authorizing charter schools. But the law is considered one of the weakest in the nation because it gives the local school board much of the authority in deciding which schools are opened.

Local board's power

For instance, although the State Board of Education can tell a local school board to review an application for a charter school more quickly - as the state did in the case of the proposed charter school in Prince George's County - the state cannot approve an application for a new school. That power belongs to local boards.

In Baltimore, the school board recently adopted a "go-slow" policy that won't permit the first city charter school until the fall of next year and also imposed the limit on new charters.

The limit has irritated charter advocates who voiced their concerns at a City Council hearing this summer. Dozens of parents and community activists testified that they see the charter movement as a way to revitalize marginal neighborhoods.

Parents of 3- and 4-year-olds from the Patterson Park area and Northeast Baltimore said they would leave the city if a charter school is not available in the next couple of years.

City Neighbors filed an application March 15 asking the school board to open a school. The group originally lobbied the school board to open this fall, but when that was denied, they asked to open next year.

The group argued that by state law, the school system had 120 days, or by July 12, to give them a response.

But on July 12, city schools chief Bonnie S. Copeland wrote to the group, saying the system would start reviewing the application Sept. 1 in keeping with school board policy.

That decision, MacDonald said, and the Prince George's school victory, made City Neighbors decide to appeal.

Baltimore groups

In Baltimore, about 20 groups have said they will file applications to start charter schools, but only three could be approved in the next three years under the limit.

The Center for Education Reform, a national charter school advocacy group based in Washington, said it expects many more appeals to be filed in Maryland.

The recent decision by the state board "caused a lot of people to stand up and get motivated again," said Anna Varghese, vice president for external affairs.

The state board is expected to rule quickly on the City Neighbors appeal, a spokesman said.

The city school system has not received notification of the appeal and had no comment yesterday.

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