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Less than a month before school was set to open, the Barbara Jordan Public Charter School had a problem. While most other D.C. charter schools were already filled up and prospective parents had to place their child’s name on a waiting list in the hope of getting in, Barbara Jordan still had plenty of vacancies.

Despite boasting small class sizes and the District of Columbia Public Schools’ (DCPS) first-year middle-school teacher of the year, the 4-year-old Manor Park school didn’t have enough applicants. So its recruitment team decided to give neighborhood parents an extra incentive to come check out what they had to offer.

In a letter addressed to neighborhood parents, Timothy Geckeler, the school’s dean of students, promised $100 “to help offset the cost of some school supplies” if they enrolled their child at Barbara Jordan Public Charter School by Aug. 18.

The still-controversial D.C. charter school system turned 10 this year. Authorized by the Newt Gingrich–led Republican Congress, the District’s charter schools are publicly funded schools that operate independently of the DCPS bureaucracy. While most charters continue to try to win over parents through their academic offerings and positive school environments, some have offered inducements ranging from free laptops to after-school care. But this is the first time a school has offered a straight-up cash incentive.

Barbara Jordan, which serves grades five through eight, has to worry about competing not only with the regular DCPS schools in the area, Backus Middle School and Whittier Elementary, but also with the recently opened Hope Community Charter School, which is less than a mile down the road, and the Ideal Academy Public Charter School, which is housed together with Barbara Jordan in a former DCPS junior-high building.

Thus far, says Principal Sherilyn Reid, the Benjamin Franklin strategy has not been a rousing success. “We did it pretty late in the year, so it’s hard to tell if it brought in a lot more parents. We still have vacancies,” she says. “$100 is not that much.”

Reid says her offer “is not a selling point at all” and notes that before parents can enroll their child, they must meet with her personally and understand the mission of the school.

Says Geckeler: “We’re not trying to buy anyone….Some parents are not ready to make that decision [to check out a charter], so we are just offering a helping hand.” He says the more important issue is “not whether a parent is leaned one way or another, but whether the child is getting a better education.”

At least one new Barbara Jordan parent, who asked not to be identified, agrees: The money doesn’t matter much. For her fifth grader, it was enough that Barbara Jordan was, in her words, “a D.C. school that didn’t suck” and didn’t have a waiting list.

Still, Reid plans to make the same $100 offer next year, but that may not happen if local politicians get involved.

There are currently no rules preventing charters using public funds to recruit new students, but school-board rep Victor Reinoso—whose district includes Barbara Jordan, one of 18 charters the board oversees—thinks their time has come. “I think common sense dictates that if schools should compete, it should be based on academics,” he says. “I think it warps the process to be offering material enticements.”

“I think we should set some parameters for this kind of behavior,” he says.

Also supporting tighter regs is fellow board member and likely future Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells. “Paying parents to apply to a publicly funded school, especially with public funds, is very inappropriate,” he says. “I believe it should be prohibited, and I will work to make it so.”

Their objections are echoed by anti-charter groups such as the Save Our Schools Coalition, which claims in a statement that Barbara Jordan is “targeting poor parents and bribing them with money.”

The crux of the issue is that charters are funded based on their enrollment—more students equals more money—and while some charters can boast impressive academic achievements, recent studies show that the majority, including Barbara Jordan, are failing to meet benchmarks in reading, writing, and math as required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, right alongside regular DCPS schools.

“If you didn’t [meet federal standards], what can you tell parents about your academics? I think it is an act of desperation,” says Iris Toyer, a longtime charter foe affiliated with Parents United for D.C. Public Schools. And with nearly 80 percent of Barbara Jordan’s students from low-income households, she says, “a hundred dollars at any given time is a good offer.”

One parent who was “shocked” to receive the offer is Crystal Sylvia, a counselor at Alice Deal Junior High in Tenleytown, which is slated to lose three teaching positions thanks largely to competition from neighboring charters. “I heard different kinds of advertising charter schools have used…but this takes it to a whole ’nother level,” she says. “This is how you sell appliances.”CP