Should District get back into the business of authorizing charter schools?

Last week’s disclosure that Mayor Vincent C. Gray and Chancellor Kaya Henderson may seek to regain the District’s status as a charter authorizer received a tepid response, including this from D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D):


D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson. (Marvin Joseph/The Post)

Perhaps that’s because it didn’t work out so well the last time.

For the first 10 years of the city’s charter movement (1996 to 2006) the old D.C. Board of Education and the D.C. Public Charter School Board both authorized the opening of charters. But the Board of Education, which had a whole other traditional public school system to run, struggled to exercise proper oversight of the fledgling charters.

A 2005 GAO report concluded that the board didn’t regularly review information from its charter school office and allowed problems at some schools to go unresolved for too long. Some school board members agreed that it wasn’t a good fit.

“The amount of time we spend on charter schools is debilitating. I want the board to focus on its core mission,oversight of D.C .public schools,” then-school board member Tommy Wells told my colleague Dion Haynes in 2006. Interestingly it was Wells, now Ward Six council member, whose questioning at last week’s agency performance hearing created the opening for Henderson to publicly reveal her interest in chartering authority.

Scott Pearson, executive director of the charter school board, who indicated that he doesn’t oppose DCPS becoming a second authorizer, pointed out that many public school districts have encountered the same problem, with charters relegated to “priority number 25” in the crush of other business.

The Board of Education voted to relinquish its chartering authority in 2006. It transferred oversight of its 16 schools to the Public Charter School Board before its extinction with the advent of mayoral control 2007.

The D.C Council, and possibly Congress, would ultimately have to approve any plan to return chartering authority to the District. Officials say the details are still in flux, but it is highly unlikely that any new plan would include a provision for the D.C. Council to handle charter applications. Authorizing power and accountability would almost certainly be held by DCPS and the chancellor.

Of the 16 Board of Education charters inherited by the PCSB, 11 are still around, among them a few of the city’s best: St.. Coletta, Elsie Whitlow Stokes and Latin American Montessori Bilingual. They also include some of the lowest performers. Five were closed by the PCSB or relinquished their charters for academic or financial reasons: Kamit Institute for Magnificent Achievers, Barbara Jordan, Young America Works, City Lights and Washington Academy. Another two, Integrated Design and Electronics Academy, a Ward 7 high school, and Community Academy’s Rand campus, a PS-5 in Ward 5, may close at the end of the school year. .

Bill Turque, who covers Montgomery County government and politics, has spent more than thirty years as a reporter and editor for The Washington Post, Newsweek, the Dallas Times Herald and The Kansas City Star.

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