When activists from the District and across the country gathered Tuesday at the U.S. Education Department to call for an end to school closures, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten issued a statement in solidarity: “It’s time to fix, not close, our schools,” she said.
A few miles away, Andy Smarick argued the opposite: it’s time to close, not fix, our schools.
A crowd of edu-minded folks gathered at Busboys and Poets to hear Smarick explain his way of thinking and debate his conclusions with a panel including D.C. Chancellor Kaya Henderson.
Smarick, of the reform-oriented nonprofit Bellwether Education Partners, formerly worked as an executive for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and as New Jersey’s deputy state superintendent of education. He’s the author of a 2012 book, “The Urban School System of the Future,” in which he outlines what he thinks it will take to improve public education.
It boils down to this: Traditional urban school systems are broken and can’t be fixed. They have to be replaced. And charter schools should be the blueprint.
“Chartering is the replacement system for the failed urban system in my view,” Smarick said Tuesday.
Smarick advocates for closing low-performing traditional and charter schools, allowing only successful institutions to continue operating. If that means that struggling school systems are forced to shrink into minor education players in their respective cities — well, so be it.
Who would decide which schools stay open and which close? A government authority (that doesn’t exist in the District) charged with creating a portfolio of schools that meets the needs of the city, and that has the power to oversee charter and traditional schools — as well as private schools that take vouchers.
As Smarick sees it, well-meaning education reformers have been trying to radically overhaul schools in America’s big cities for half a century. They’ve spent hundreds of billions of dollars.
And they don’t have much to show for it, Smarick said. Academic achievement is still “tragically” low, whether you look at national test scores or graduation rates, he said.
“It’s a civil-rights, social justice disaster — and someone needs to talk about it,” he said.
That a school system should compete for its existence is not hypothetical in the District, where DCPS faces fierce competition from a growing number of charter schools, and where Henderson just announced plans to close 15 schools with low enrollment.
Henderson is not averse to chartering; in fact, she’d like to have the authority to charter her own schools, and she has repeatedly said that she recognizes that in some cases and in some neighborhoods, charters are succeeding where DCPS has failed.
Instead of closing Malcolm X Elementary, for example, she is in talks to allow a charter school to take it over, creating what she describes as “some kind of weird hybrid” between charter and DCPS.
If a charter “can do it better than I can do it in that neighborhood, I’m good,” Henderson said Tuesday. “I recognize that I’m both an education provider and I’m also a portfolio manager.”
But the chancellor on Tuesday pushed back against the idea that charters are the answer to what ails public education. DCPS has its failings, she said, but so do charter schools and private schools that take vouchers.
“I think everybody recognizes that urban school districts are not figuring out how to meet the needs of our neediest children,” Henderson said. ”But neither are any of the other sectors.”
Nobody, Henderson said, has really figured out how to create a system that consistently and equitably educates the neediest children.
D.C. charters on the whole post higher test scores and graduation rates than DCPS schools, but Henderson attributed the difference in part to the obligation that DCPS has to serve all students. Charter schools have more latitude to serve only students who succeed in meeting expectations.
Hinting that the District’s charter advocates have allowed low-performing charters to persist in order to claim growing market share — charters now enroll 43 percent of public school students — she called for the city to be more aggressive about shuttering charters.
Also on the panel was Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of Great City Schools, which represents several dozen of the nation’s urban school systems; and Louisiana State Superintendent John White, who previously headed the Recovery School District in New Orleans — the only city besides Washington with a higher proportion of kids in charter schools.
Conversation ranged from the role of politics in urban schools to the emotional disruption of school closures to critiques of Smarick’s rosy interpretation of charter schools’ academic performance.
But there was little talk about what it means for families and communities when school systems are replaced, in whole or in part, by a network of charter schools or other schools of choice. The anxiety of lotteries and waitlists, the difficulty of long student commutes to schools across town, the loss of ties to a neighborhood school — none of that came up.
Smarick said afterward that some of those problems — such as the lottery — can be addressed and eased. But for all the frustrations families might have, he said, across the country fewer and fewer are enrolling in their assigned schools as they choose options based on criteria besides location.
“The era of neighborhood schools is on the wane,” he said. “And I think that’s a good thing.”