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SCHOOL'S OUT

WHY IS P.S. 1 THE ONLY NEW CHARTER SCHOOL TO SURVIVE? ASK DPS.

After a tough fight, a second charter school will finally open in Denver this fall. But it won't be the controversial Thurgood Marshall school, nor will it be another proposed school aimed at helping at-risk inner-city kids.

The lucky winner goes simply by P.S. 1, a so-called urban school based downtown. The Denver Public Schools board gave final approval for P.S. 1 last week; although scaled down from its original proposal, it is the first charter school in DPS territory to have started from scratch.

In the meantime, Thurgood Marshall's advocates are mired in legal battles with DPS and have given up opening this school year. And the nonprofit agency that proposed the Denver Youth Academy for at-risk middle-schoolers, which had received DPS approval but neither money nor a place, quietly surrendered in June.

The snail's pace at which charter schools have been approved by DPS has not gone unnoticed. A spokesman for a group that advocates charter schools says it's the districts with the worst reputations that fight charter schools the hardest. And DPS critics gleefully say that the board's reluctance is playing into the hands of people who want a voucher system.

Charter schools operate within public school systems using tax dollars and must adhere to public-school standards and regulations, but they are more free to experiment with curricula and emphases. A voucher system would allow parents to use their tax money to send their children to whatever school, public or private, they choose. Vouchers are generally favored by conservatives who deride public schools for getting away from "the basics" in favor of such topics as multiculturalism. Public school supporters fear that vouchers would destroy the current educational system, especially in the inner cities.

DPS lawyer Patrick Mooney insists that the district is not against charter schools and that the only argument now is with the state Board of Education. He says he believes the reason DPS has been slower to grant proposals compared to other districts is a matter of economics.

Districts whose populations are growing--such as those of Jefferson and Douglas counties--are only too happy to have a charter school relieve some of the overcrowding. But DPS has plenty of facilities and a dropping population. In the case of Thurgood Marshall, the district is being asked to renovate and open a facility it doesn't need.

Jim Griffin, the executive director of the Colorado League of Charter Schools, says Mooney's argument is balderdash.

"It's not a perception, it's reality: DPS does not want charter schools," Griffin says. "Other school districts have dragged their feet, but only DPS is willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to drag this to the Colorado Supreme Court.

"The tendency has been for the worst school districts--those with the worst track records and the worst reputations--to fight charter schools, with DPS right at the top. On the other hand, look at Cherry Creek, which has an excellent reputation. Their attitude has been, `Sure, come on in and see if you can do better.' They don't feel threatened, not like districts like DPS, which I think are afraid of what might be exposed."

Griffin points out that a number of poorer districts and those with flagging populations, such as two in Pueblo, have been receptive to charter schools. His group plans to propose legislative changes that would make it possible for proposed charter schools to circumvent reluctant districts and go directly to the state Board of Education.

There were fourteen charter schools open last year in the state. This year ten more, including P.S. 1, will join them. Griffin says that for the most part, school districts have been cooperative. Where they're not, he says, he's hearing frustrated parents and school proponents swear they're turning toward vouchers.

At this point, however, he says the frustration is isolated--much of it is in Denver--and the voucher movement small.

Tom Tancredo, head of the conservative Independence Institute, which strongly supports vouchers, says DPS's antagonism toward charter schools is unwittingly helping his cause.

"We're stepping toward vouchers that much more quickly," he says. "The most gracious thing that can be said of the people who make up the Denver Public Schools board is that they must all be graduates of DPS. They don't exhibit very good management skills. In fact, they're the dumbest bunch of rocks I've ever seen gathered in one place.

"What do they hope to accomplish by continually turning down these people who are trying to extricate children from the DPS jailhouses? Do they think the pressure is going to go away? Do they think people are going to suddenly swarm to Denver Public Schools--that people will come running back to the city?"

Though he obviously relishes the rhetorical dogfight over charters, Tancredo says he feels for the children caught in the middle.

"I can joke about the school board and the people on it, but there is a very real tragedy looking at the lives of kids they've ruined," he says. "Every kid they keep locked up is a kid unable to achieve his potential. The DPS board has no clue to what the hell is going on."

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