D.C. mayor, schools chief discuss plan to restore city power to create charters

February 23, 2012

Mayor Vincent C. Gray and Chancellor Kaya Henderson are discussing a plan to restore the District’s power to create public charter schools as part of an effort to raise the quality of education in low-income communities.

The measure, if adopted, could accelerate the robust growth of publicly funded, independently operated schools that serve 41 percent of the city’s 77,000 students across 98 campuses. The D.C. Public Charter School Board is the only entity that can authorize the opening of a charter school. The District government relinquished chartering power in 2007 when the mayor took control of the traditional school system from the old D.C. Board of Education.

Officials cautioned that the idea of adding the District as a second charter authorizer is at a preliminary stage and that the mechanics of adopting such a change remain unclear. Gray (D) has directed Deputy Mayor for Education De’Shawn Wright to explore the legal and procedural issues surrounding the measure.

It comes at a time of intense discussion about the future shape and direction of public education in the city. A major new study commissioned by the city concluded that the District needs thousands of additional “quality seats” in schools serving impoverished neighborhoods. It recommended turning around or considering the closure of more than three dozen schools and the recruitment of high-performing charter organizations as one way of improving educational quality.

Henderson voiced unconditional support for chartering authority Thursday at a D.C. Council hearing.

In response to a question from council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), Henderson said the traditional school system would benefit by giving schools the kind of freedom that charters enjoy.

“What we know is that autonomy leads to innovation and success,” Henderson said. She added that she viewed restoration of chartering authority not as a means of competing with the charter board but as a way to collaborate and move with dispatch to place good schools in underserved neighborhoods.

Too often, Henderson said, the city’s two education sectors have worked at cross-purposes. In some cases, she said, new charter schools “starve” nearby traditional public schools or ultimately starve each other. She did not offer specific examples but said the net effect is that the city is “funding two failing systems.”

“I think we’re at a moment in time,” Henderson said of the city’s school reform effort, when “we need to look at not competing but collaborating.”

As an example, Henderson cited Stanton Elementary in Ward 8, which is in its second year of operation by Philadelphia charter operator Scholar Academies under a contract with the city. Although the charter group struggled last year, Henderson said the school has shown significant improvement.

“We are not going to turn Stanton around in one year,” Henderson said. “However, the progress I have seen makes me confident that Stanton can serve as a model for improving our schools.”

D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D) said he was receptive to the idea but made no commitments.

“I do not have plans to introduce any legislation that would give DCPS chartering authority at this time,” he said in a statement Thursday afternoon, referring to the D.C. public school system. “I will bring all of the relevant parties to the table before making any final decisions regarding whether this is an appropriate role for DCPS.”

One especially sensitive political issue surrounding charter authorization is the city’s relationship with unionized teachers. Most charter schools are non-union. Washington Teachers’ Union President Nathan Saunders said that he doesn’t reject the idea out of hand but that the union has to be in the mix.

“If the mayor believes this is a way to abandon unions, then it could be disastrous,” Saunders said. “We are very interested in working to make schools competitive, and we think we can offer a superior product.”

Henderson’s predecessor, Michelle A. Rhee, and then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) also floated the idea of reclaiming charter power. But the plan, raised in the midst of a contentious contract fight with the teachers union, did not gain traction. Henderson said she has received inquiries from charter operators, working in the city and elsewhere, interested in partnering with the D.C. school system. She declined to name the operators.

Henderson said she envisioned charter groups taking over distressed schools such as Stanton or starting new ones with authorization from the District.

Scott Pearson, executive director of the D.C. Public Charter School Board, said he has no objection to the District becoming a charter authorizer as long as it leads to the creation of quality schools.

“It’s actually considered by many to be best practice to have multiple authorizers,” Pearson said, adding that it gives charter applicants more than one venue for winning approval. He cited New York and Chicago as examples of where it has worked well.

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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