About a mile away is Walker-Jones, a traditional elementary and middle school, which has poor test scores and a $42 million state-of-the-art building. Farther to the northwest are the $72 million Alice Deal Middle School and $125 million Woodrow Wilson High School.
The contrast between Two Rivers and the gleaming traditional public schools nearby tells a larger story about education in Washington. While the District pours billions into rebuilding a city system that has more classroom space than it needs, parents are increasingly opting for charter schools. If trends continue, charter enrollment will surpass the traditional public school population before the end of the decade.
Yet even as charters soar in popularity, D.C. officials have often relegated these schools to second-class status, maintaining
funding policies and practices that bypass charters and steer extra money to the traditional city school system.
D.C. officials contend that the differences are not inequities but the hallmarks of a different educational model. Charters, publicly funded but privately operated, benefit from being free of central bureaucracy, collective-bargaining agreements and procurement rules, they say.
Supporters here and across the country say the absence of those constraints helps to make charters an essential alternative to traditional public schools. The best of them have demonstrated an ability to close the achievement gap between rich and poor children, which has bedeviled public education for decades.
Critics regard the charter movement as an assault on a bedrock democratic institution — the neighborhood public school. They cite studies showing that most charters do no better, and often worse, than traditional schools in serving poor children. By siphoning off money and motivated families, they say, charters have left the traditional school system with fewer resources to serve the most disadvantaged students.
What’s not in dispute in the District is the robust growth of the charter sector. In 1998, the District’s traditional system served 95 percent of public school children. But what began as a congressionally mandated experiment to spur improvement in established public schools is now an institution in its own right. Enrollment has grown nearly tenfold since 2001.
Although charter schools represent just 4 percent of the nation’s public school enrollment, they serve 41 percent, or 31,562, of Washington’s 76,753 public school students — the highest concentration in any school district besides New Orleans.