July 12, 2013

Suzanne Wells, a parent leader who helped revitalize neighborhood schools on Capitol Hill, appealed this week to the D.C. Council’s Education Committee to cut the number of charter schools allowed to open annually. “Ten [a year] may have made sense in 1995,” she said. “Almost 20 years later, when 43 percent of the students in the District attend charter schools, [it] no longer makes sense and must be reduced if the city wants to maintain a strong system of neighborhood public schools.”

Her request is moderate. Many parents and education activists want a moratorium on new charters, which operate independently of the government but are taxpayer-funded.

Nationwide there are more than 6,000 charter schools, serving about 2.3 million students, according to a report by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO). That’s an 80 percent increase since 2009, when the group released its first study.

Charters in the District showed significant gains over their traditional public school counterparts, according to CREDO. Generally, however, the sector has a lot of room for improvement.

Two issues in CREDO’s analysis raise serious questions about charters, and those concerns should be incorporated into the education reform debate that was ignited by legislative proposals introduced last month by D.C. Council member David Catania (I-At Large), chairman of the education committee.

Consider that CREDO researchers found, among other things, “The 2009 and 2013 charter school impacts on math learning gains are significantly lower than their respective TPS [traditional public school] counterparts.” Further, it says, “students at new schools have significantly lower learning gains in reading than their TPS peers.”

The “starting-score reading average for all schools in 2013 is higher than the 2009 average.” But those are “heavily influenced,” wrote researchers, by charters that have been around for the past four years.

It’s a numbers game.

If new charters are struggling, producing results not much better than those from traditional schools, why not consider slowing charter growth?

CREDO found performance gains were affected by school closures. The nation has seen 193 close since 2009. The District closed 35 of 95 charters authorized to open since 1996.

“To be precise, schools that closed since the 2009 report posted an average of 72 fewer days of learning in reading and 80 fewer days of learning in math before closure,” the report said.

“The charter sector is getting better on average,” wrote researchers, “but not because existing schools are getting dramatically better. It is largely driven by the closure of bad schools.”

Leaders of the D.C. Public Charter School Board have made no apologies for the closures. CREDO researchers encourage shutting down low-performing schools. How would D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) fare if Chancellor Kaya Henderson were allowed to close low-performing traditional schools?

Have traditional schools been adversely affected by the charter closing process? What has happened to children sometimes left midyear without an academic home?

Theola Labbé-DeBose, communications director for the charter school board, told me that the board hired an enrollment specialist to help track children and aid parents in finding charter alternatives.

But if DCPS has to provide a report on the effect of school closures, why not have charters do the same? District officials have not required a comprehensive study of charters. Next week, the city is expected to release a legally mandated assessment of education reforms covering business practices, human resources and academic and student achievement; charters were not included.

City Auditor Yolanda Branche declined to elaborate on the assessment, which was conducted by researchers from the National Research Council and EdCore. “The information will be relevant, substantive and helpful,” said Branche, adding the law does not require the evaluation of the charter network.

Labbé-DeBose noted that the charter school board is subjected to council oversight and independent financial review, which provide a “clear and transparent” view of charters and their activities. “But we do understand the value of having an outside perspective.” The board invited the National Association of Charter School Authorizers to conduct a review of its operation. That report is expected this month. “They gave us pretty high marks,” Labbé-DeBose said.

That’s all good. But that association is part of the charter system. If the District wants a full understanding of and appreciation for all of its public education system, an independent evaluation of charters must be conducted. Moreover, an assessment of the impact of charter closures on District students, neighborhood schools and the DCPS also must be provided.

There are two sides to every tale. Thus far, District residents are getting tidbits of only half the story.