Louis Steadwell smiles politely as LaShone Goodman begins leafing through the glossy materials spread in front of her. A natty-looking man in a gray pinstriped suit, crisp white shirt, and red-patterned bow tie, Steadwell looks more investment banker than rumpled calculus teacher. In some ways, he’s a mix of both: Steadwell is the chair—not principal, mind you—of SABIS International Public Charter School, one of 10 new D.C. charter schools recruiting students for this fall.

Traffic has been kind of light at SABIS’s end of Catholic University’s Caldwell Hall, an old auditorium where D.C. Parents for School Choice and Friends of Choice in Urban Schools are co-sponsoring the D.C. Charter School Fair, last Saturday afternoon. Beginning in 1996, D.C. parents have had the option of taking their children out of the public school system and putting them in charters, publicly funded schools autonomous from the school system in curriculum and administration. Given the general state of District schools, you wouldn’t think it would be a tough sell, but 29 schools have set up shop in Caldwell Hall to market themselves as an escape route.

Part science fair, part auto show, the exhibition gives parents and kids the opportunity to learn about the upstart schools, meet administrators and faculty, and shop around for the best deal. “I’m a civil rights-nik, and I see charter schools as the other shoe of the civil rights movement,” says Malcolm Peabody, a member of the board of directors of D.C. Parents for School Choice, as he surveys the crowd. “The public schools need to be woken up.”

Some schools, notably Techworld and the Washington Math Science Technology Charter School, lure education shoppers in with nifty gadgets à la Sharper Image or Brookstone. Techworld, a high school training students for careers in information technology, attracts a steady stream of onlookers eager to try out its translucent green Newton laptop computer, one like which the school guarantees each student will receive. Others go for big science-project-like displays to attract attention. The more low-tech booths, like SABIS’s, try a sweeter approach.

“Would you like some candy?” Steadwell asks Goodman, as he reaches for a colorful basket full of Hershey’s Kisses and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.

Goodman hesitates, and then grabs a Reese’s. “What do you have to offer?” she asks.

“Ninety-seven percent of kids who graduate from a SABIS-run school go on to higher education,” Steadwell tells her with confidence. But before he can continue with his prepared spiel, Goodman cuts him off with a rapid-fire line of questions.

“Do you offer ground transportation?” she asks.

“We’re not sure right now,” he wavers.

It’s full artillery now. “Do you wear uniforms?” she follows up. “What will your hours be?”

“I think it’s 8 to 4,” Steadwell responds.

“Well, my kids go to Young Technocrats,” she tells him. “And they’re in school 7 to 7.”

Steadwell clears his throat as Goodman pauses for a moment. “Will you have after-care?” she starts up again.

“We will,” Steadwell says with authority. “It’s on a small-fee basis.”

Bad answer. “Young Technocrats offers that for free,” she says with a smile.

A small crowd starts to form around the SABIS table, drawn in by the give and take. Steadwell looks around—smiling, of course—and then strikes back.

“Well, they opened in a school that wasn’t ready in September,” he blurts.

“It’s ready now,” Goodman says as she walks away.

The fair attracts more than 300 parents to Caldwell Hall, many wowed by the amenities charter schools promise—which seem to include everything but a track record. “Oh, this has been great fun,” says Patricia Chittams, a parent of four who lives in Washington Highlands. “To put it bluntly, I’m sick of [D.C. public schools].”

Chittams spends time at each booth, asking questions and looking for clues. “Granted, everyone has fresh faces,” Chittams says. “I want to see how they interact with parents. This gives me an idea of how the school will be run.”

Chittams explains that when she was over at the Richard Milburn Public Charter School booth, she thought the representative answered her questions and concerns too brusquely. “I could tell that this is not the type of environment where my kids could flourish,” she notes.

At the end of the day, Chittams chooses the Hyde Public Charter School for her oldest son. Its display includes a video touting the cornerstones of the Hyde belief system and a book written by Hyde’s founder with an introduction by Cher. (Her son Elijah attended Hyde.)

“It’s like buying a car,” Chittams says. “The reason you buy a car in the first place is what it looks like. Then the new-car smell draws you in, intoxicates you….So you drive the car, take the car out for a test drive to see what it’s really like.” Of course, if a charter school turns out to be a lemon, the price can be far more dear. CP