Janey Questions Charter Schools

By Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 15, 2006

D.C. School Superintendent Clifford B. Janey is calling for a moratorium on new charter schools in the District, saying the independently run, publicly funded facilities are draining students and cash from the traditional school system while failing to offer a high-quality alternative.

In an interview, Janey called on Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), the D.C. Council and education officials to help develop a method for evaluating the city's 51 charter schools before permitting any more to open.

"We have not delivered on quality education here in D.C., both with respect to the charter schools and to DCPS. That's why I would advocate for a moratorium," Janey said. "This is not a push back against charter schools. It's rather reclaiming the purpose of public education to be one of quality. It would be a mistake to continue to grow without having a handle on quality."

A moratorium would require the approval of the independent board that authorizes new charters. Its chairman dismissed the idea yesterday. Still, Janey said he would continue to press his proposal, which interjected a strong voice of caution into the debate over charter schools.

Charter schools have proliferated in the District since they were authorized by Congress a decade ago. Last year, they enrolled more than 17,500 students. Enrollment in the traditional public school system, meanwhile, has plummeted from about 80,000 students to about 58,000.

Six more charter schools are scheduled to open this fall, said Thomas A. Nida, chairman of the D.C. Public Charter School Board, which oversees 34 schools. Three more were recently approved for the fall of 2007, he said.

In rejecting Janey's call for a moratorium, Nida pointed out that 25 percent of D.C. public schoolchildren are in charters.

"That speaks for itself," he said. "We're willing to look at working with the whole system to see what makes sense. But to just say stop is not the best approach as far as the kids are concerned."

The D.C. Board of Education, which also has chartering authority, oversees 17 charters in addition to managing the traditional school system. Those charters have run into more trouble than schools managed by Nida's board, and the Board of Education declared its own moratorium on new charter applications earlier this year amid a federal investigation into possible misuse of charter school funds.

In the District and nationally, charter schools have proven difficult to assess. In questioning their quality, Janey pointed to a 2003 study by the National Association of Educational Progress, which found that low-income fourth-graders in charter schools had lower average reading and math scores than their counterparts in public schools. Overall, however, national statistics show very little difference between charter and regular public schools, and a 2005 study by the Progressive Policy Institute found charters making some progress in the District.

Still, the quality of individual charters varies wildly. One middle school, the KIPP DC: KEY Academy in Southeast, has the highest test scores in the city. But a high school, the New School for Enterprise and Development in Northeast, was closed in June after being accused of financial mismanagement and altering test scores.

Williams, a strong charter advocate, has in the past rejected the idea of a moratorium. Yesterday, the two leading candidates in the race to replace him -- D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D) and council member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4) -- were cool to the idea as well.

Fenty called the proposal "knee-jerk," saying "the government should be in the business of supporting quality schools," regardless of who runs them. Cropp seconded Janey's call for tough evaluation but declined to comment on the possibility of a moratorium.

Last summer, Cropp called for controls on the "tremendous growth" of charter schools, saying their proliferation "could be the death knell for public education in the District." But she has since backed away from that stance and now calls only for better monitoring.

Janey said he plans nonetheless to talk with Nida, the mayor and council and raise the issue at the Aug. 23 meeting of the D.C. Education Compact, a partnership of elected officials, business leaders and education activists.

"Now's the time to take a deeper, systemic look at quality before going about business as usual," said Janey, who in September will mark his second anniversary as the city's schools chief. "What's at stake is making sure kids are college- or work-ready. And that is not the current case."

Staff writer Jay Mathews contributed to this report.

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