The charter future of D.C. public schools

With one decision about one elementary school, D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson is filling in the picture of the future of the District’s long-troubled public school system.

It’s been clear for some time that the public school system in the nation’s capital has been moving toward charter dominance. It doesn’t take a genius to figure it out: There are now about 45,000 students in 117 traditional public school buildings under Henderson’s control, and there are about 35,000 students in 57 public charter schools beyond her control, run by the D.C. Public Charter School Board. Henderson is planning to close 15 schools this year, and more charter schools are being approved every year.

Now, my colleague Emma Brown reported in this story that after years of poor performance, Malcolm X Elementary School in Southeast Washington will be renovated to the tune of $21 million and then reopened under the management of a high-performing charter school, Achievement Prep Public Charter School.

Malcolm X was originally on the closure list, but Henderson decided to go a different way with the school. The result: a ground-breaking partnership that will be somewhere in between a traditional public school and a charter public school.

The idea is that neighborhood kids will attend the school, which is counter to the charter school law which requires that anybody in the city can apply. It will  be the first experiment in having a charter operator work with a neighborhood population of low-income students in the District.

Henderson is doing a number of things with this decision. First, she is admitting that she is out of strategies or magic to improve Malcolm X, so she is turning to a charter school that has had success improving test scores with children from low-income families.

She has long wanted her own authority to charter schools in the system — and this move, in effect, gives it to her without D.C. Council permission, though she is likely to get that anyway.

With this Malcolm X decision, the future of the city’s school system becomes even clearer: more and more charter schools, some run by the D.C. Public Charter School Board and some, a neighborhood version, run by the chancellor.

Henderson said in Brown’s story that the Malcolm X arrangement could be the first of similar ones between the school system and charter school operators. Though she repeatedly says that she doesn’t think that charter schools are the answer to fixing public education in the city, her actions seem to say otherwise.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | May 9, 2013