What's Going on in DC's Charter Schools

Education’s Big Bang: Ten years after DC’s first charter school opened, the city has become one of the nation’s biggest laboratories for a movement that excites parents and teachers—and threatens the traditional neighborhood school

By: Brooke Lea Foster

Senior writer Brooke Lea Foster (bfoster@washingtonian.com) wrote about father-daughter relationships in September.

Jennie Niles stands erect before a group of parents—white, Hispanic, and black, all filled with hope. At more than six feet tall, with two Ivy League degrees, she cuts an imposing figure.

As more parents file in and take seats, Niles fiddles with a scarf tied at her neck. Her smile is forced. Two years ago, she realized a dream and founded the E.L. Haynes Public Charter School, which perches atop a CVS drugstore in DC’s Columbia Heights. Despite the school’s small size—it has only eight classrooms—it made a big splash in its first year when a top executive with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, one of the nation’s biggest philanthropies, joined its board. Now Haynes is so popular that more than 100 kids from across the city are vying for 22 kindergarten slots.

DC’s charter-school law requires that students in such circumstances be admitted based on a lottery. Niles hates the lottery. She doesn’t think public schools should turn kids away, and she’s reluctant to disappoint these parents.

“Between now and the opening of school next fall,” Niles tells them, “we hope to lease a larger building to accommodate more of your children.

“We wish we had enough space for all the families who want to come here,” Niles says. She pauses while her words are translated into Spanish. “I can’t make any promises, but we’re trying.”

Niles and her school are part of a radical experiment that’s alternately hailed as the salvation of public education or the instrument of its doom. Ten years ago, Congress passed a law for DC authorizing the creation of charter schools—public schools run by nonprofits, for-profit companies, and individuals under a charter agreement with the city. These schools get tax dollars but operate independent of the District of Columbia Public Schools, or DCPS. They’re free to choose a curriculum, hire staff, and manage their finances as they see fit. In return, the schools must meet academic targets outlined in their charters.

The District now has 55 charter schools on 70 sites. Last year, the schools enrolled 17,648 students, a quarter of all DC’s public-school kids—a higher proportion than in all but two other cities. The numbers surprise even those who launched the movement. “We knew there would be some really dedicated educators who would come forward and start schools—and they did,” says Mary Levy of the Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. “But they just keep coming.”

Some see this as a sign that the days of the traditional neighborhood public school are numbered. In the decade since charters were introduced, DCPS’s enrollment has dropped nearly 20,000 to 60,000. Superintendent Clifford B. Janey plans to close up to 30 schools in the next two years.

The kids who filled charter schools in their first years were not too different from those in DC public schools: They were predominantly black, and most were poor. Recently charters have begun to attract the children of DC’s professional class. Critics of charter schools say the District is encouraging this trend, lavishing charters with money and support to make them more attractive to middle- and upper-class families who often move from DC to avoid troubled schools. The city, these critics charge, is creating two systems of education that are separate and unequal.

The next few years will prove critical for charter schools. Their advocates see in them the ingredients for a revolution in education. But first, these schools have to prove that they work.

In 1992, a group of Minnesota teachers opened the country’s first charter school, an academy in one of the poorest neighborhoods in St. Paul. The idea of schools freed from central-office bureaucracies caught fire, and by the end of the decade, 36 states had passed laws authorizing charters.

The Newt Gingrich–led Republicans took control of the House in 1995 with lots of ideas about how to improve the country—and the District of Columbia. Gingrich assigned Congressman Steve Gunderson, a moderate Republican from Wisconsin, to head a panel drafting legislation aimed at the DC schools. Gunderson proposed a package of reforms that included a plan for “scholarships,” or vouchers, for low-income DC kids who wanted to attend private or religious schools.

When Gunderson’s plan reached the Senate floor in 1995, the idea of funneling public funds to private and religious schools proved too controversial. Democrats filibustered, and all of Gunderson’s reforms died—except a provision for the creation of charter schools in DC. The 1996 act authorized as many as 20 schools every year. It guarantees equal funding with traditional public schools and is one of the most expansive in the country.

Jennie Niles moved to Washington in 2003. A Brown University graduate, she’d taught middle and high school in Los Angeles and Massachusetts before entering Yale’s School of Management to get her MBA and the training to realize her dream of opening a charter school.

She was interning as an assistant principal at DC’s Capital City Public Charter School in Columbia Heights when she and a friend who worked in education policy sent an e-mail to everyone they knew—other policy types, teachers, principals, foundation staff, friends from graduate school: “Come by this Saturday and let’s talk about what would make a great school.”

Despite heavy rain, about 25 people showed up in an office conference room that Niles borrowed from a friend. She led them in a three-hour workshop that worked through the school’s financing, curriculum, and mission. It would be a school, Niles said, where every child succeeded. And it would run from kindergarten through 12th grade, because the District’s traditional public schools couldn’t be trusted.

Over the next several months, Niles and the others put together a 120-page application to the DC Public Charter School Board. The charter board, along with the DC Board of Education, was authorized by Gunderson’s law to screen charter-school applicants and review their budgets and curricula. Those who want to open a school are interviewed by the board in a public hearing.

Niles’s group proposed a year-round school—the first public school of its kind in DC—to “level the playing field” with kids who could afford after-school and summer enrichment activities. Their school would focus on math and science and use a project-based curriculum. Many of the students would be immigrants learning English and come from low-income families.

The school, the application said, would be named E.L. Haynes Public Charter School, in honor of Euphemia Lofton Haynes, who taught for 47 years in District schools and was the first African-American woman to receive a PhD in mathematics.

Charter-school founders in DC are mostly educators, but the ranks include a surprising variety of people from other fields—social entrepreneurs, community activists, Georgetown law professors, former business executives, and parents. A few founders teamed up with for-profit educational management companies to run the schools.

Founding teams often buzz with the energy of a technology start-up. Many are opening schools that offer a specialized curriculum that they’re passionate about, whether it’s an elementary school for kids who want to be artists or a high school for those interested in the law. Among DC’s charter schools is a public boarding school—the nation’s first—and a high school focused on public policy.

Founders also bubble over with the missionary zeal of a nonprofit. In their most hopeful moments, they see their schools as inspiring change throughout the city.

Before charter schools, talented outsiders would have thought twice before devoting themselves to a DC school system that many perceived as hopelessly dysfunctional, says Robert Cane, director of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, a group that advocates on behalf of the city’s charter schools. “Public education has been hampered in the past because the working conditions didn’t attract as many bright, creative, change-oriented people.”

Gunderson’s law does more than any in the country to help charter schools financially. Some states give charter schools as little as half of the per-pupil dollars that traditional public schools receive. In DC, charters get the same base funding—about $8,000 per student, according to the Public Charter board—and pay nothing toward DCPS operations. The District also awards charters a $2,800-per-student facilities allowance to help pay the rent or mortgage—funding that’s rare elsewhere in the country.

Because charter schools operate independent of DCPS, they can spend that money as they see fit. Leaders of Capitol Hill’s KIPP DC: KEY Academy budgeted funds to buy violas, violins, and cellos so every child could take orchestra. Washington Mathematics Science Technology Public Charter High School in Northeast DC bought a few $12,000 high-tech blackboards.

“If I want to fix the roof,” says Barbara Nophlin at Paul Public Charter School, “I fix the roof.” No work orders, no waiting for the central office to approve funds.

Because charter-school teachers are not part of the Washington Teachers’ Union, principals are free to hire and fire teachers. Like most school systems, DC has a contract with its teachers union that dictates pay and makes firing even the most incompetent teacher a protracted and expensive proposition. If charter principals want to give a high-performing teacher a raise, they can. Emily Lawson, who founded DC Prep in Edgewood, pays her teachers as much as 7 percent more than DC public-school teachers with similar experience.

The staff at charter schools also revel in the freedom to set their own curriculum. “If we want to do something to help our kids, we just do it,” says Barbara Birchette, assistant principal at Washington Math and Science, who worked for years at Ballou High School. Because nearly all freshmen arrive at Washington Math and Science testing below grade level, administrators doubled the number of math and English classes each student takes. “At DCPS,” says Birchette—she pauses, rolls her eyes, and shakes her head—“I mean, who knows how long it would take to make a change like that.”

Kate Feldmeier’s first-graders at Haynes are diving into a writing workshop. Sunlight streams in through a wall of windows, making the room bright and cheery. The tables and shelves are new. The walls are robin’s-egg blue. Stories written by kids line the walls, along with hints like memoir starters: when i was little . . . . In large yellow letters on the window is the E.L. Haynes motto: be kind. work hard. get smart.

Before Feldmeier came to E.L. Haynes, she worked for two years at Harris P.R. Educational Center, a DCPS school in Southeast DC, and then at the Woodridge campus of Friendship Public Charter School in Northeast. A graduate of Davidson College in North Carolina, she came to the classroom through Teach for America, a program that recruits graduates from top universities to work in inner-city and rural schools. Teach for America is a pipeline of talent for charter schools; five of the 14 E.L. Haynes teachers are alumni.

Feldmeier took the job at Haynes even before Niles had started to move into the space over CVS. “Jennie was so smart and articulate and had such a clear vision for the school,” Feldmeier says.

When Feldmeier reported to work, she built furniture and painted walls alongside Niles. She and the other teachers walked the neighborhood recruiting students. Spanish-speaking staffers reached out to immigrant families.

As the writing workshop begins, Feldmeier asks her kids, “When we’re good writers, what do we do to make our writing easy to read?”

“Read back your words,” says a girl named Makayla.

Another girl, Mary, raises her hand. “Draw pictures so everyone can read it, even if they can’t read your words.”

In a city where only 13 percent of fourth-graders are proficient in reading, Feld­meier is pushing her first-graders to read at the level where she taught third-graders when she worked for DCPS. She says setting high standards is a Haynes trademark.

“There is so much passion and energy,” Feldmeier says. “Even if you are a passionate person at a public school, you can only get so far. You’re still worried about what’s going to happen to the kids next year. Here, it’s such a relief. I can think, ‘Oh, my babies are going to have an amazing teacher next year. They’re going to be just fine.’ ”

Other refugees from traditional public schools rave about the support they’ve found at charter schools. At Capital City, there’s a head teacher and a teaching fellow for every classroom and a special educator for every grade. Teachers get daily planning blocks, summer seminars, two hours of development each week, and trips to model schools and conferences around the country.

“In a lot of DCPS schools,” says Karen Dresden, principal of Capital City Public and a former teacher at DCPS’s Hearst Elementary, “a lot of teachers might have 25 to 30 kids on their own without a lot of help to meet the needs of kids who aren’t doing well. They don’t even get an hour of planning time each day.”

Melanie ElLaissi taught kindergarten at DCPS’s Murch Elementary before moving to E.L. Haynes. Every week she sits down with a support team—Niles, the special-education coordinator, the ESOL teacher, the director of after-school programs, and other teachers—and talks about struggling students.

“They’re asking, ‘Is there a fluency issue? Is there a learning issue? Does the child have physical hearing loss? Is he just tired? Is he eating his lunch?’,” ElLaissi says. “At DCPS, you didn’t have this. You’re alone in the classroom. . . . You just do the best you can.”

Others say the culture of the city’s traditional public schools punishes those who upset the status quo. Susan Schaeffler, who taught for four years at Shepherd Elementary, started KIPP’s KEY Academy. At Shepherd, Schaeffler worked after school with students and saw their test scores climb. This extra effort thrilled her principal but upset some colleagues, Schaeffler says: “It was like we all had to agree to be mediocre in order to keep the peace.”

Parents dissatisfied with Hearst Elementary School pulled their kids and founded Capital City in 2000. “We had to decide: Are we going to beat our heads against this brick wall again and again? Or are we going to do something positive and fresh?” says Andrea Carlson, one of the founding parents. “Starting a school was kind of magical.”

Since the first DC charter schools opened in September 1996, they’ve been a flash point of controversy. Only a few schools started in the first two years, but by 1998, when 15 schools opened and filled up quickly, it was clear that they posed problems for DC’s traditional public schools.

About 100 DCPS teachers and several principals left that year to work in charter schools, which often offered better pay.

A member of the DC school board warned that charters were creating a “schism” in public education; then-superintendent Arlene Ackerman openly called charters “the enemy.”

Charter critics have long warned that the freedom given to charters leads to abuse, and they’ve been proven right in some cases. Of the 67 charters opened in the District, 12 have been closed, mostly for financial mismanagement.

Within months of opening one of the city’s first charters, the principal and a few staffers at the Marcus Garvey Public Charter School assaulted a Washington Times reporter and two police officers; Garvey was later closed after questions were raised about its fiscal management. The Young Technocrats Charter School shuttered after only a year; its misdeeds included writing $84,490 worth of bad checks.

Many charter-school advocates blame the Board of Education’s charter-school office for these failures. Along with the charter-school board, the school board has the power to screen and authorize charter schools, but critics say it does neither well. A 2005 report by the General Accountability Office concluded that the charter board did a better job of monitoring and helping schools than did the school board—in part because it had more staff.

This summer, the Board of Education gave up its chartering authority while a federal investigation sorts out whether its top charter-school official directed money to friends.

As the charter movement gains momentum, its growing pains may give critics more ammunition. Part of the appeal of DC’s first charters is their size; many enroll no more than a couple of hundred kids, and some are boutique small. This September, City Collegiate Public Charter School opened with two classes of 27 students each. Capital City has between 22 and 24 kids in each grade from pre-kindergarten through eighth.

“We’re here to teach kids,” Washington Mathematics Science Technology Charter School principal Floyd Gilmore tells parents, “not to warehouse them.”

But charters are growing to accommodate their waiting lists—and hitting some rough spots. Thurgood Marshall Academy, founded by a group of law professors at Georgetown, has been heralded as a model charter school. But according to the charter-school board, the school is no longer meeting the academic targets of its charter. When questioned at a public meeting this spring, school officials blamed the fact that the school has grown from 226 to 321 students in the past few years.

Some of the larger charter high schools face the same kind of problems that students leave traditional public schools to avoid. César Chávez Public Charter High School, which started out small, today enrolls more than 400 students. It does well academically—sending 89 percent of seniors to college last year—but it’s had gangs and fights. One Hispanic student interviewed for this story said he left César Chávez because he was too scared to go to school.

Terrell Williams, a senior at Washington Math and Science, says charters are safer than traditional schools, but they’re not perfect. “Just because the school name is different does not mean the students are different. The same stuff that happens at Ballou can happen here, and a lot of things do.”

Since the first charter school opened in Minnesota, critics have charged that the schools siphon off the best students from the traditional public schools. Taking the cream of the system, they say, leaves traditional schools with the lowest-performing students as well as those whose families can’t or won’t search for the best school for their children.

Charter advocates deny this. By law, they must take anyone who walks in the door on a first-come, first-served basis. Unlike private schools, they can’t set admissions criteria. According to many charter principals, most students they enroll are two or three grade levels behind. “We get kids at every level,” says Washington Math and Science’s Birchette. “Wherever they are, we have to take them.”

Demographic data suggest that kids in charter schools are not too different from their counterparts in DC public schools. Ninety-eight percent of charter-school students are minorities, compared with 95 percent of DCPS students. And 78 percent qualify for the federal poverty program that provides students free or reduced-price lunches—six percentage points more than in DCPS.

The charter-school numbers may be changing. Gentrification has swept across the District, bringing professionals into neighborhoods where drug dealers once reigned. Many young couples who bought relatively pricey condos and rowhouses in neighborhoods like Petworth and Columbia Heights now have kids, and charter-school principals say those parents are applying in increasing numbers. The waiting list at E.L. Haynes includes many children of professionals.

This fall two new charter schools, City Collegiate in Georgetown and Washington Latin in Upper Northwest, opened, and both are marketing themselves as alternatives to private schools. Whites make up nearly half of Washington Latin’s student body.

Six-year-old Beckett used to go to Ross Elementary School, which is only a half block from the Dupont Circle condo where he and his mom, Lisa Lias, live. “There was a very parents-versus-the-administration kind of mentality,” says Lias. “It was like, ‘This is how we do it, and this is how we’ve always done it.’ ”

When Lias was considering applying to E.L. Haynes last year, she e-mailed principal Jennie Niles: “Are there going to be Spanish classes? You’re a math/science school; will literacy be emphasized?” Lias was surprised when Niles’s reassuring response arrived within 24 hours.

In their condo, Lias nods when Beckett asks to conduct one of his science experiments. Beckett grabs cinnamon, salt, and a bowl from the kitchen and heads into the bathroom. “His enthusiasm for school is so different now,” says Lias, an actress. “He’ll come home from E.L. Haynes and tell me things like they made pinwheels. Then he’ll talk about the wind and how fast it was going and what direction it was coming from.”

Recently Beckett announced that he was going to read his mom a bedtime story. He picked up Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax and read aloud: “I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees.”

E.L. Haynes may not be a neighborhood school, Lias says, but she feels a sense of community. She knows the staff at the front desk. When Lias’s mother died, Niles, Feldmeier, and the school’s assistant principal all e-mailed to say, “We’ll keep an eye out on Beckett.”

Lias, who grew up in the District and attended Beauvoir, says Beckett is getting as good an education at Haynes as he would at a private school. “There are many examples of what’s not working in DCPS,” she says. “But E.L. Haynes is an example of how to do it right. These kids are learning.”

Says Beckett: “It’s a school that makes everyone smart.”

The growing interest of professional families in charter schools is a sensitive subject. Many of the founders created their schools with disadvantaged kids in mind, and those schools recruit heavily in low-income neighborhoods. Handing enrollment slots to kids whose parents could afford a private school doesn’t always sit well with the staff at charter schools. “Is it fair?” says one teacher. “Yes. Do I think it kind of stinks? Yes.”

The growing appeal of charters to the District’s professional class is at the heart of a lawsuit filed against the city by Save Our Schools, an anticharter group started by two Capitol Hill mothers. The suit charges that the District is neglecting traditional public schools while lavishing support and money on charters. The group says charter-school principals make “bloated salaries” and pad their budgets by raising money from foundations—something individual DCPS schools aren’t permitted to do.

The lawsuit focuses on the Two Rivers Public Charter School, which was founded by Capitol Hill parents unhappy with DCPS’s Watkins Elementary. Save Our Schools says that the city supported the creation of Two Rivers so white parents could escape predominantly black traditional schools. When the school opened in 2004, one-third of its students were white, and about half were black. It shares space with Eliot Junior High, a traditional school that last year did not have a single white student.

Terry Collingsworth, the lawyer representing Save Our Schools, told the Common Denominator newspaper that “the city’s focus on charter schools is part of a long-term plan to gentrify the District by making the schools mostly white and pushing out lower income, mostly minority residents.”

Two Rivers officials declined to comment on the lawsuit because it’s still in court. But Malcolm Peabody, founder of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, rejects the idea that a charter school is discriminatory if its racial makeup doesn’t mirror that of neighborhood schools.

Peabody says: “So in order not to discriminate you have to have a school that’s 95 percent black? Bullshit. There are members of the white community who are desperate to get their children educated just like everybody else and can’t afford $20,000 for their two or three children to go to private school.”

Based on the rapid growth of charter schools over the past ten years, some observers speculate that the day soon may come when charter students outnumber DCPS students. This year alone, charters enrolled 2,800 new students.

Still the system seems unlikely to tip anytime soon, particularly given evidence that the charter-school market may be saturated. Nearly every charter school that opened in 2005 was underenrolled. The Academy for Learning Through the Arts, or ALTA, got half the number of kids it needed to pay its rent and administrators. Two weeks before school started, a teacher and assistant principal were let go. ALTA’s principal, Patricia Mitchell, who worked as an administrator with DCPS for 27 years and founded the Fillmore Arts Center, believes parents were reluctant to apply because the school was late finding space. ALTA is located near Northwest DC neighborhoods that are home to several other charter schools.

This year, more than ever, the charter-school board wants to see that applicants have analyzed the neighborhood in which they plan to locate and have identified a need for their schools. Charter schools are also facing opposition from residents who fear a school’s noise and traffic could affect their neighborhoods. SEED school, a boarding school for 7th through 12th grades, met neighborhood protests when trying to open a second campus, in Kingman Park. Groups in several neighborhoods lobbied for and won approval of stronger zoning regulations that make it harder for charters to open in residential neighborhoods.

Ultimately, the question of whether charters will eclipse traditional public schools rests on whether they can succeed academically. To date, there’s no definitive data on their effects on children’s learning over time. Advocates have done snapshot analyses that suggest charters in certain areas are outperforming traditional schools. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools found that fourth- and eighth-graders in the District’s charter schools scored higher than their counterparts in traditional schools on federal tests in 2005.

In contrast to that glowing picture are the scores from District testing tied to the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Of the 31 charter schools tested last year, nine met the law’s benchmarks for improvement. This year, even fewer schools showed signs of improvement.

What is clear is that some of the charters are outstanding schools. Last March, Roots Public Charter School was awarded $370,000 by Congress for reaching “gold” status, given to schools where a majority of students are proficient in reading and math.

KIPP’s KEY Academy, another “gold status” winner, is one of the city’s highest performing middle schools, public or charter. It sends its graduating middle-schoolers to some of the nation’s best high schools—including Andover, Sidwell Friends, and Banneker, DC’s star magnet school. KIPP has a placement office, and counselors talk with parents and students about what high school is the best fit. Kids are encouraged to apply anywhere they want.

Last year at least five charter high schools—Thurgood Marshall, SEED school, César Chávez, Washington Math and Science, and Marriott Hospitality—sent 89 percent or more of their graduates to college. The kids are more likely to go to community college than to Harvard, says Washington Math and Science principal Floyd Gilmore, but they are often the first in their families to finish high school. That changes how they see themselves, Gilmore says.

Side by side with such standouts are schools that are failures. Two years ago, the charter-school board closed Southeast Academy for failing to meet its academic targets; test scores showed fewer than a third of its elementary students were proficient in reading. Last year, New School for Enterprise and Development got the ax for what charter-board officials called “a pattern of chronic underperformance”—this before city and federal investigations of allegations that included mismanagement of funds and grade inflation.

Charter advocates say closures show the built-in accountability of charter schools. Under DC’s law, a school that’s not meeting the academic targets established in its charter can be closed after five years. “When was the last time a public school was shut down for academic reasons?” says Nelson Smith of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. “Bad public schools are allowed to exist for years.”

Charter critics say the closures are a sign that charters don’t live up to their hype. “If they were all really great schools, then it would be hard for me to say anything,” says Gina Arlotto, one of the founders of Save Our Schools. “But the truth is, you have a few good charter schools just like you have a few good public schools.”

Until recently, DC schools chief Clifford Janey had been considered the most “charter friendly” superintendent the District has had. “He really understands the nature of the game now,” says Robert Cane of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools. “Previous superintendents have tried to subvert the charter-school movement.”

Janey has invited charter-school principals to his monthly meetings and spent a day as principal of KIPP’s KEY Academy. In May, Janey reversed DC public-school policy and said he’d make available up to 1 million square feet of excess space for charters to lease.

Janey also encouraged the unique partnerships between DCPS’s Scott Montgomery Elementary and a third KIPP charter school that opened this summer. The two schools will share a building and trade best practices and curricula. Kids will attend Montgomery through fourth grade, then go to KIPP through middle school.

When the DC school board approved the partnership in June, Janey applauded it as a “national breakthrough.”

But in August, Janey sounded a different note, proposing a moratorium on the creation of charter schools. Their growth should be controlled, he said, until it’s clear that they’re educating students better than traditional public schools.

Janey’s proposal changes little; only Congress could call a halt to the creation of charters. Some in the charter community say Janey’s rhetoric is in part a response to the poor showing of charter schools on the No Child Left Behind tests.

“A moratorium is a way for Dr. Janey to do damage control while we look at what’s working in charters and what’s not,” says KIPP’s Susan Schaeffler. “He doesn’t want resources going to charters that aren’t performing.”

Despite the moratorium, it’s clear that Janey embraces some of the core principles of the movement, including choice and specialty schools. If there’s going to be a Washington Latin Charter School, Janey told a packed auditorium in February 2006, DCPS should have a Latin school. He’s proposed that Spingarn High School become a boarding school for the construction trades. Ballou’s curriculum would center on media and communications.

Last year Woodrow Wilson High School, one of DCPS’s top schools, approached Janey about gaining more control of its budget and curriculum. Wilson was considering applying for charter status. Janey told the school to put off its charter application and opened negotiations to give Wilson more autonomy.

Janey also has floated ideas about decentralizing all DC schools and giving principals more control over staff and money.

The suburbs outside DC are not fertile ground for charter schools. The three that opened in Prince George’s County this fall are the first near DC. The Maryland and Virginia charter-school laws, according to charter advocates, are among the worst in the nation. They give the schools few freedoms and vest a lot of control over the budget and curriculum in the local school boards, which usually aren’t eager to make things easy for competing schools.

But key concepts of the charter movement are catching on. In Montgomery County, students can choose between high schools, most of which have adopted “signature programs” like performing arts or law and ethics. Five Fairfax high schools offer academies focused on fields such as engineering and medical sciences.

Charter advocates say there would be a revolution in public education if traditional public schools were given the freedom charter schools enjoy. T. Robinson Ahlstrom, founder of Washington Latin School, argues that every school should manage itself, control its own budget, and hire and fire teachers. “If we could do those three things,” he says, “we could change American public education.”

In the next 20 years, Nelson says, school systems may do away with their central offices and become loosely united groups of self-managed traditional public and charter schools—something like the District of Columbia Association of Schools.

A school district in Edmonton, Canada, successfully decentralized, and a couple of small suburban school districts in the United States have converted all or most of their schools to charters.

Many suburban districts have resisted charter schools, but Smith of the national charter-school group says that the No Child Left Behind Act is revealing failures in those systems that may lead to calls for change. “I think we’re going to have enough schools do well that this will be an increasingly compelling model for delivering public education,” he says.

In the weeks after her meeting with the hopeful parents, Jennie Niles raced all over the city to check out properties for a new, bigger home for E.L. Haynes. Often the buildings were in such bad shape that there was no chance of getting a valid certificate of occupancy. “Some of these places you don’t even want to step into,” she says.

Charters compete for the same limited space. Some have located in storefronts, others in church basements. Two schools opened in the basement of Southwest DC’s Waterside Mall, assuming a temporary lease held by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Many schools don’t have athletic fields or gymnasiums. Kids at E.L. Haynes, take recess on a tiny playground with no jungle gym or swings.

In the end, after visiting more than 50 properties, Niles came up empty. All 225 children on the school’s waiting list had to be turned away.

Then she got lucky. A piece of property turned up on Georgia Avenue—a parking lot a block from the Petworth Metro station. She thought it was the perfect spot to build a school. It was large enough to accommodate a growing student body, and the neighborhood is racially mixed. Haynes’s enrollment today is fairly balanced—49 percent of students are African-American, 31 percent are Latino, 16 percent are white­, and 4 percent are Asian—and Niles doesn’t want any one race to dominate.

With the backing of groups that included Building Hope, a Sallie Mae–sponsored charter-school facilities fund, Niles secured a loan to buy the land and build a new school. When it opens in August 2007, E.L. Haynes will have everything a traditional school has: a gym, a cafeteria that will double as an auditorium, libraries, even classrooms devoted to music and art. Because Niles loves the bright and spacious rooms in the school’s current home, she’s asked architects to include lots of windows and bright colors. She’s also asked second-graders to design a rooftop playground.

Next year E.L. Haynes will enroll 324 students—134 more than this year. Having two kindergarten classes instead of one will take 22 kids off the waiting list.

In August, Niles told second-grade students that the school was moving to a new building. Some had questions: “Will you still be our principal?” “Will the school have the same name?”

Later, a boy knocked on Niles’s office door. He said he was worried. “You have to write down the address of the new building so my mom knows where to take me next year.”

Niles hesitated. Parents had already been told the school’s new location. But the boy pleaded, “She needs to know where to go.”

Niles scribbled the address on a piece of paper and handed it to the boy. He smiled.

Says Niles: “That’s what this is all about—making kids want to come to school.”