Gray sends D.C. Council a proposal to give chartering authority to schools chancellor

It’s official: Mayor Vincent C. Gray on Friday transmitted legislation to the D.C. Council that would give Chancellor Kaya Henderson the authority to approve new charter schools.

Gray (D) announced his intention to seek chartering authority for Henderson during his weekly radio address Sunday, and the bill has been under legal review since.

Gray has said that chartering authority can be uses as a tool to turn around struggling schools and spur rapid student achievement gains. It would, for example, offer a legal pathway for the high-performing Achievement Prep Public Charter School to take over Malcolm X Elementary, as Henderson has proposed.

But some critics wonder why Henderson, who already has broad authority to manage the city’s traditional schools, needs to bring in outside operators such as Achievement Prep to trigger improvements. Others question whether a school system leader, responsible for managing a large bureaucracy, is equipped to approve charters — and able give offer them total autonomy.

Council Member David A. Catania (I-At Large) is also seeking to give the chancellor the ability to open schools free from municipal regulations and teacher union contracts. But Catania’s proposal to allow for “innovation schools” — part of a package of education legislation he introduced this week — stops short of giving Henderson chartering authority. Innovation schools, while not necessarily neighborhood matter-of-right schools, would still be part of the traditional system.

Here are the main elements of Gray’s bill:

• With only two exceptions, DCPS-chartered schools would be “identical” to schools chartered by the D.C. Public Charter School Board (“PCSB”) and operate with the same independence, according to Gray’s transmittal letter to Chairman Phil Mendelson.

• The two exceptions: Test scores posted by DCPS-chartered schools will be included in DCPS proficiency rates, and DCPS charters will be able to elect to guarantee access to neighborhood kids. The attendance boundary for a DCPS charter school would be determined by the chancellor.

• Charter schools can currently choose to offer preference in enrollment lotteries to children of founders and siblings of current students. Gray is seeking to add three new preferences, including for children of full-time employees at the charter school, students with disabilities and students who live near the charter school.

The latter preference would apply to children living within an attendance zone established by the charter authorizer — either the D.C. Public Charter School Board or the chancellor.

• Some charter schools are “dependent” on DCPS for special education, which means that the traditional school system is liable for ensuring that those charters must comply with federal law in delivering services to students with disabilities. Gray’s bill would require all charter schools to take on that liability for themselves.

• Currently all charter schools fork over 0.5 percent of their annual budgets to the D.C. Public Charter School Board, which uses the money to fund its operations. The bill would raise that administrative fee to 1 percent. Catania has proposed the same increase in his package.

The District’s old school board had chartering power until 2007, when then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty took control of the city’s traditional school system. Now the independent D.C. Public Charter School Board is the only entity that can authorize new charter schools in the city.

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