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Posted at 06:36 PM ET, 04/03/2012

Two D.C. school reform events, competing visions

The two education gatherings last Thursday evening were only two miles apart on the map. But in the philosophy and agendas, the expanse separating them is vast.

In the spare, concrete-and glass chapel at Metropolitan Community Church in Shaw, about 100 community activists met to discuss the future of D.C. public education in a symposium called a “A Fork in the Road.”

They came, as the title suggests, out of the belief that five years of mayoral control has not only failed to markedly improve District education, but has pushed it to a perilous crossroads. It has led, they contend, to parents with no voice, shuttered schools and a burgeoning charter school sector that is publicly funded, privately operated and largely unaccountable.

At the same time, the leaders of that thriving sector dined in the Louis XVI elegance of Meridian House off 16th Street NW. The occasion was the annual gala of FOCUS DC (Friends of Choice in Urban Schools), the influential lobbying arm of the the city’s charter schools, which are open to all and now serve 41 percent of the city’s public school children. The speaker list included former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein, D.C. Council Chairman Kwame Brown and Mayor Vincent C. Gray, whose office made sure that the announcement of a $9.4 million supplemental appropriation to charters was made just a few hours prior to the gala. DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson was also there, but did not speak.

Those standing at the “Fork in the Road,” sponsored by the 21st Century Schools Fund, SHAPPE (Senior High Alliance of Parents, Principals and Educators) Empower D.C., D.C. Voice and WE ACT radio, aren’t categorically opposed to charters. But they expressed alarm about a neighborhood school system imperiled by the city’s tilt toward an ideology that places autonomy and choice above all else. Several cited the recent IFF school capacity study, commissioned by the city with funding from the charter-friendly Walton Foundation, which included among its recommendations that the city move more aggressively to attract high-performing charter operators to neighborhoods with few good educational options.

“Will D.C. citizens commit to maintaining an equitable system of neighborhood schools of right, publicly controlled and planned?” asked SHAPPE Executive Director Cathy Reilly. “Do we value having the right to go to a school that is close to home, do we want the chance to invest in these schools and make them work for all families?”

Reilly acknowledged that “privately run and managed charter schools” had been embraced by the city’s parents. But she added:

“Without deliberate action, given the current trajectory, we could lose the District of Columbia Public Schools and be a city of dozens of separate school systems.”

There was discussion of possible remedies. They included a ballot initiative to restore the old D.C. Board of Education, which went dark with the advent of mayoral control, so that parents and communities could have more of a voice against a powerful executive branch.

I didn’t attend the FOCUS gala, but charter school blogger Mark Lerner wrote Monday that Klein spoke passionately about school choice.

“He asked why underprivileged people do not have the same freedom to select their children’s schools as those gathered in this room,” said Lerner, president of the Washington Latin PCS board.

Lerner added that Gray and Brown, who came on after Klein, did not bring up the subject of equitable funding for charters, a hot topic.

“In fact, after hearing from Mr. Klein, the speeches from these career politicians came across as vacuous as their failed promises,” Lerner wrote.

A sentiment which may be the sole piece of common ground these two passionate groups share.

By  |  06:36 PM ET, 04/03/2012

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