BETTY ANN BOWSER: Every morning at 7:15, Lolita Wood takes seven-year-old daughter, Jana, to Edison Friendship Elementary, not by car, not on a bus, but in her wheelchair. She goes to all of this trouble because she believes in the program at Edison Friendship.
LOLITA WOOD: I like their curriculum. I like the things that they do, the things that they teach, and the behavior that the kids have to follow. I like that. (Reciting Spanish lesson)
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Like the other parents who bring their children here from all over the District of Columbia, wood likes the Spanish language immersion program... (Singing in Spanish) ...The music and art classes.
JOHN PENNEL: Your shoes tied?
JOHN PENNELL: Everybody?
BETTY ANN BOWSER: ...The emphasis on discipline. And she likes the fact that Jana will get to bring a brand new computer home next year when she becomes a third grader. Because the school runs its own financial affairs, principal John Pennell can hire and fire teachers without going through the bureaucracy downtown. And his staff can decide how and what to teach.
JOHN PENNELL: Will we ever see dinosaurs again?
JOHN PENNELL: That's why they're extinct.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Edison friendship has all the autonomy of a private school, but it isn't. It is a public charter school paid for with taxpayers' money. Nelson Smith is executive director of the D.C. Charter school board.
NELSON SMITH: A charter school is a public school that operates independently of the traditional public school system. It is publicly funded. It is accountable to a public body, but it is operated without the red tape and bureaucracy of the traditional public school systems.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The number of charter schools has grown from just one in 1992, to over 17 hundred in 25 states today. But the District of Columbia has seen some of the most dramatic growth in the country.
TEACHER: Check your answers, okay?
BETTY ANN BOWSER: This is a school system where 75% of the fourth graders can barely read, where 95% of the eighth graders can't do grade- level work in math and science.
TEACHER: What is it? Do you know what it is?
BETTY ANN BOWSER: So the prospect of charter schools that could use public money but operate independently of the broken system has been warmly received in some quarters. Under the district's charter school law passed by Congress, 20 schools can be created each year. So in just a short period of time, 32 charter schools have opened. Today almost one out of every ten kids in the public school system attends a charter school. The schools offer a dizzying array of programs. Sometimes an entire school is devoted to an education niche. This elementary school teaches children with learning difficulties.
TEACHER: How did you arrive at this decision.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: And this school has a curriculum designed for kids who've been in the criminal justice system. Charter schools are in fact beginning to attract students back from private schools to a system that was once written off as one of the worst in the country. A few months ago, Yvette Clinton took seven-year-old daughter Jasmine out of a private school that cost $6,000 a year and placed her at Edison Friendship.
YVETTE CLINTON: I grew up and I always went to a private school. And I didn't believe that you could receive an appropriate education without having to paying for it. But I found out here at Edison that that is not the case.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But not all the D.C. charter schools have been successful. Several were closed because of fiscal mismanagement. And D.C. Board of Education President Robert Childs says there have been other problems.
ROBERT CHILDS: We've seen times where a person will open a school that is not ready to be open, and really is not health-wise, safety-wise is it not safe for children to enter the building. But they've rushed it open so they wouldn't lose dollars for the school year.
TEACHER: Four times blank equals four. What is the answer?
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Critics of charter schools also say because teachers don't have to be certified, there isn't enough control over the quality of teaching. And, they say, charter schools hurt the traditional system, because each child who leaves takes more than $7,000 in per- pupil allotments with them to the charter school. So D.C. School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman is fighting to hang on to every student.
ARLENE ACKERMAN: I want this school system to be the absolutely best school district in this country. So I mean competition is real. One of the things that I tried to do is to free schools of the bureaucratic structures that were in place a few years ago. In fact, now, when I came 20% of our budget was spent on the central office bureaucracy. Now 6% of the budget is spent. And those dollars have gone directly into the schools.
TEACHER: Say it. Spell it.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Some of that money went into an intensive 90 minute a day reading program.
CHILD: Mr. Lash sets up the fish tank.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Today more children are reading at or above grade level.
TEACHER: He stretched out under the sunny skies.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Ackerman also hired 1,100 new teachers at a time of national shortages, and she's added new computer technology programs.
TEACHER: Who has perseverance in this story?
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Now the tug of war between charter schools and traditional public schools has moved to Northwest Washington where opposing forces are fighting over the future of Paul Junior High School. Educators from all over the country are following what happens here closely to see if charter schools can undermine traditional public schools at a time when aggressive attempts are being made to improve them.
TEACHER: If we perform this in the auditorium what would you find exciting? Yes.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Last spring, after two-thirds of the students, teachers and parents at Paul Junior High, signed required petitions to become a charter Cecile Middleton is the principal of Paul Junior High.
CECILE MIDDLETON: Well, I think a charter school forces accountability, and that's something that we need very much in the D.C. public schools. If we have accountability we won't have teachers getting their checks late. When things don't work, like, we have one line now on our telephone and parents are constantly complaining they can't get in contact with us. In a charter school we would be able to have that fixed instead of waiting for the school system to come out and do it.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But the new the Paul Charter School hit a roadblock when it asked to do what no other charter school has done. Instead of finding new space, the Paul Charter advocates want to lease the building. The answer from Ackerman was a resounding no. Ackerman reasons, if the Paul Charter School gets the building, what's to stop other schools from converting and doing the same thing?
ARLENE ACKERMAN: We've spent more than $3 million on in the last five or six years with new roofs, new gym floors, and windows. What happens when we've spent this kind of money bringing this building up to, you know, some kind of modernization code you, and then we're going to lose that building, not only lose it to the school system, but lose it to the families who also... and the community, the larger community.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Ackerman retaliated. She wants to pour thousands of dollars into a new Paul Magnet School with computers and technology, and share the building with the New Paul Charter School. Charter School Board Director Smith says it's a recipe for disaster.
NELSON SMITH: Here's the dilemma: How do you put a brand new charter school, which is authorized to fully occupy its building, in the same building with a school with 500 kids, which is what the school system says they want, and that school would appeal directly to people who don't like the charter schools? That is a prescription for failure, for tension and for not a very good learning environment.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Now the debate has turned ugly. A group of teachers representing about half the teaching staff at Paul, has charged they were threatened with their jobs if they didn't go along with the charter school plan.
AZALIE HIGHTOWER: Some teachers left the school in June and did not return because they felt as though they had been intimidated to point where they could no longer stay there. I think there some are teachers who feel as though their ratings are lower than what they should be, and it's that way because they did not sign.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Middleton adamantly denies all of this. Did you pressure any of the teachers?
CECILE MIDDLETON: No, not at all, not at all.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The Washington Teacher's Union has called for an investigation into the teacher's charges. The D.C. Charter school board says it is looking into the matter. Jeanne Allen, Director of the Center for Education Reform, says the debate over Paul is important because similar disputes have gone on in other parts of the country. Her organization tracks charter schools.
JEANNE ALLEN: What the Paul School shows us is very typical across the country. It's almost as if you've got a school that's basically asking its administration for a divorce. "Sorry, we don't want you. We're taking the furniture. We're leaving." There's a real resentment building between charter schools and their administrations, particularly when they want to convert. There's not one case in this country where, despite protestations to the contrary that charter schools are taking our money, where schools have had to close down because suddenly a charter school opened up.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But Superintendent Ackerman says it's too early to make such judgments.
ARLENE ACKERMAN: And so we need to be careful. I mean, charter schools are relatively new. They're untested. We don't have a lot of data about results. And I think this is one of those initiatives that, while it certainly has a lot of benefits, we need to move slowly with them. And we need to make sure that we're holding charter schools accountable for the same kinds of results and high standards that we're holding public schools accountable for as it relates to students results.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: They may not be new, but the charter schools are rapidly becoming a popular alternative to the status quo. Surveys continue to show parents like Lolita Wood are frustrated with traditional public schools and impatient with efforts to reform them.