D.C. mayor to seek chartering authority for schools chancellor


Mayor Vincent Gray at the Regional Economic Forum on April 11, 2013. (Jeffrey MacMillan)

Mayor Vincent C. Gray is set to introduce legislation that would give the D.C. schools chancellor authority to approve new charter schools, a measure meant to improve academic options in long-struggling neighborhoods.

Gray is expected to announce the proposal in his weekly radio address Sunday morning, according to spokesman Pedro Ribeiro.

The aim is to give Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson a way to attract successful charter operators and a tool to turn around chronically low-performing traditional schools, according to remarks prepared for the mayor’s Sunday address. Gray’s office also made a summary of the legislation available.

“We’ve seen some major improvements in our schools,” according to Gray’s text. “But I want to see more gains, and I want to see them faster.”

His proposal is another sign of the city’s tilt toward charter schools, publicly funded and independently operated schools that have grown quickly in recent years and now enroll 43 percent of the city’s students.

Henderson first expressed an interest in chartering authority more than a year ago, arguing that it would allow her to create schools free of bureaucratic rules and regulations that she said hamper traditional schools.

A number of outside charter operators have expressed interest in working with the school system, benefiting from its resources and purchasing power, according to Henderson.

“I think the time is now to learn from the past and think toward the future for what our students need,” she said in a statement.

“Chartering authority is another tool we can use to help improve student achievement, one that we will use only in the right situations, as strategically as possible, to provide better outcomes for students.”

Besides giving new authority to the chancellor, the mayor is also proposing to allow some charter schools — those located in “high need” areas of the city — to become neighborhood schools, which students living nearby would have a right to attend. “High need” has yet to be defined.

Charter schools enroll students from across the city, holding lotteries when demand exceeds space. That policy is meant to offer equal access to all children but has led to outcry from District residents clamoring for stronger neighborhood schools that can help define communities.

The District’s old school board had chartering power until 2007, when Mayor Adrian M. Fenty took control of the city’s traditional school system. The board — mainly responsible for running a troubled urban school system — struggled to provide oversight of its charters and allowed problems to go too long unaddressed, according to a 2005 report by the Government Accountability Office.

Now the independent D.C. Public Charter School Board is the only entity that can authorize new charter schools in the city. The charter board supports the mayor’s proposal, said spokeswoman Theola Labbé-DeBose, and is willing to help the chancellor become an effective authorizer.

Schools chartered by the chancellor would operate with the same independence as existing charters, with control over budgets, curricula and staff. But test scores posted by chancellor-chartered schools would count toward the school system’s overall proficiency rates.

Like existing charters, employees of the city school system’s charters would not be required to unionize, according to Gray officials. Washington Teachers’ Union President Nathan Saunders said he could not comment until he sees the legislation, expected to be introduced in the D.C. Council next week.

Longtime education activist Cathy Reilly, president of the Senior High Alliance of Parents, Principals and Educators, wondered why the chancellor needs to bring in outside organizations to improve the city’s schools.

“I feel she’s given up being a leader of the municipal system,” Reilly said. “Why can’t we do good DCPS schools without an outside operator?”

D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), chairman of the education committee, also questioned whether the chancellor needs chartering authority in order to provide schools with more flexibility.

“But if the case can be made that giving the chancellor chartering authority would improve student achievement, I would welcome that,” Catania said. “I look forward to the conversation.”

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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