The Future of D.C. Public Schools: Traditional or Charter Education?

By Lori Montgomery and Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Ten years after Congress imposed charter schools on a reluctant city, the District has emerged as one of the nation's most important laboratories for school choice and one of the first to confront a central tenet of free-market theory: Will traditional public schools improve with competition? Or will charters take over?

Both sides agree that the District is approaching a critical juncture. With public confidence in the schools at an all-time low, more than 17,000 public school students -- nearly one in four -- have rejected the traditional system in favor of 51 independently run, publicly funded charter schools. That share is one of the largest in the nation and is expected to rise when six more charter schools open their doors this fall.

As charters have proliferated, the number of students attending traditional schools has plummeted from 80,000 a decade ago to 58,000 last school year. Because tax dollars follow the student, charters now claim at least $140 million a year that might otherwise flow to neighborhood schools. That has led traditional schools to cut programs, lay off teachers and, for the first time in nearly a decade, close.

Powerful forces in the national debate are watching closely to see whether D.C. schools can win those students back.

"The hope has always been that the traditional school system would respond by getting better, by doing things that are politically painful, but we've never had a good test of it until now," said Michael Petrilli, a former Bush administration education official who is a vice president of the pro-charter Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

"We're going to see whether D.C. can compete," Petrilli said. "If that doesn't happen, you'll see charters continue to open. And you could wind up with the first system entirely composed of charter schools."

This month, D.C. School Superintendent Clifford B. Janey called for a moratorium on new charters, saying they threaten the traditional system while failing to offer a high-quality alternative. The chairman of the city's independent chartering authority rejected the idea, but Janey plans to press his point with city officials, educators and other civic leaders.

"We should stop growing just for the sake of growing," Janey said. "Charter schools were never conceived to replace a school district. They were conceived to add quality."

Charter advocates argue that D.C. Public Schools rank among the worst in the nation in student achievement and that charters, which are tuition-free to students admitted through lotteries, are a vital alternative.

Comparing achievement is difficult, because charter test scores cover a relatively brief period. But two recent studies show D.C. charters outperforming traditional schools.

Still, the District's charters -- like its traditional schools -- score well below the national average. D.C. officials said the most recent results under the federal No Child Left Behind law are equally disappointing for charters and other public schools. Nationally, studies have shown no significant difference in test scores between charters and other public schools.

Tired of seeing money siphoned from neighborhood schools into the uncertain hands of charter operators, a group of public school parents filed a lawsuit in 2004, accusing city and federal officials of "creating a two-track system" of education that favors charters and impoverishes children who remain in the D.C. school system. The lawsuit accused the city of promoting the Two Rivers Public Charter School east of Capitol Hill so white and middle-class parents could escape neighborhood schools that are "too black."

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