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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."

Last month, in a rare legal victory for anti-charter forces, a federal judge allowed the case to go forward, ordering D.C. officials to respond to the claim.

Meanwhile, charters, which once focused mainly on rescuing children from the worst schools in the city's poorest neighborhoods, are expanding to more affluent areas and appealing to middle-class families.

Next month, the Washington Latin School, a charter for grades five through 12, is scheduled to open in the same Northwest Washington neighborhood as St. Albans, Sidwell Friends and other exclusive private schools. Washington Latin will offer a "classical education" that is "rich in antique and global literary sources," according to its Web site.

"What will be difficult is if the next wave of charters ends up attracting essentially middle-class families, the people who bought into the District five years ago [and] want to stay in the city but can't afford private schools," said Mary Filardo, executive director of the 21st Century School Fund. "If that's the next wave of growth, then DCPS will lose the middle class. And when you lose the middle class from this universal public institution, you lose the quality control."

Individual public schools are fighting back. Each spring now brings a battle for students, with dueling open houses and recruitment drives. This year, Ross Elementary near Dupont Circle bought ads in community papers touting its new art program.

Charter operators have proven equally aggressive. When M.C. Terrell Elementary in Southeast was targeted for closure in the spring, the founder of Nia Community Public Charter School showed up on Terrell's doorstep with fliers.

The outcome is crucial not only for today's schoolchildren, but also for the future of a city where troubled schools have long sent families fleeing to the suburbs. A recent Washington Post poll found that 15 percent of D.C. voters have confidence in the regular school system, the lowest recorded in a Post survey.

A Success Story

Lisa Koker made her decision without looking back. When the time came for her daughter, Sierra, to start school, Koker didn't bother to visit the public school in their Northeast Washington neighborhood.

"The public schools don't have the best reputation," Koker said. "You see them featured on '60 Minutes' and '20/20.' "

So Koker, a human resources manager, went shopping for a charter. Word of mouth led her to Capital City Public Charter School, one of the District's most popular. Founded in 2000 by middle-class parents frustrated by administrative problems and crumbling facilities at Hearst Elementary in Northwest, Capital City has about 225 students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade -- and a waiting list of more than 600.

Unlike traditional schools, charters have access to special facilities funds created by the city, Congress and nonprofit groups that allow them to borrow large sums. As a result, Capital City's founders were able to raise about $6 million to buy and renovate an imposing brick church in Columbia Heights.

The colorful, light-filled space has a state-of-the-art computer lab, a well-stocked library and a music room -- extras that have proven difficult to maintain in many traditional schools. Most classes have two teachers and access to a team of special education instructors, who offer discreet help in the regular classroom.

Free to control its budget and curriculum, the school follows an instructional model that organizes academic subjects around a broad theme each semester. Students studying the Chesapeake Bay, for example, might analyze water samples in science and read about the bay's history. When the semester ends, the students make a presentation to parents, who are strongly encouraged to attend and applaud their children.

That's what Koker was doing on a sunny afternoon near the end of the school year: waiting for Sierra, 6, to join other first- and second-graders in an oral report on the life cycle of bugs. Although the school produces excellent test scores, Koker said, she most appreciates the warmth and energy of the staff.

"Every day, I ask Sierra, 'Did you have a good day?' And she says, 'No, Mommy. I had a wonderful day,' " Koker said. "It puts one at ease as a parent."

About half of Capital City's students are black, a quarter are white and a quarter are Latino. Just over half come from low-income families, making it far more diverse than most traditional and charter schools, both of which are predominantly black and poor.

When Capital City opened, "there were no white students at all in charter schools. We were really worried we would be accused of creating a white school," said Anne Herr, one of Capital City's founders. But diversity has been a selling point among parents of all races, who praise the school as a model of integration.

"I've watched neighbors and friends say, 'I'm leaving Washington because of the schools,' " Herr said. "Now I think there are people who are coming to the city or staying in the city because they're happy with the school their child's in."

Some Excellent, Some Incompetent

The District's charters were approved by a Republican Congress in April 1996 over the objections of many school officials. Viewed as a politically palatable alternative to private-school vouchers, the legislation won bipartisan support, and President Bill Clinton signed it.

But the first year was not auspicious. Just two charters opened with a total of 160 students. One of those quickly made headlines when Mary A.T. Anigbo, principal of Marcus Garvey Public Charter School, was accused of assaulting a news reporter she had ordered out of the school. Marcus Garvey eventually closed amid allegations of financial mismanagement.

In the past 10 years, 12 D.C. charter schools have closed. Charter advocates say that is not a sign of failure but a willingness to end experiments that aren't working, a stark contrast to the bureaucratic barriers that make it difficult to address problems in traditional urban schools.

"We bury our dead," said Malcolm Peabody, founder of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, a D.C. charter advocacy group.

After the 1997 appointment of an independent chartering authority, the movement began to take off. Charter advocates and their critics have since bickered over how best to measure performance, a task complicated by the wide variation among schools and a lack of extensive test data.

Looking at test results from the 2004-05 school year, the Progressive Policy Institute found that 54 percent of D.C. charter school students were reported as proficient in math, compared with 44 percent of students in traditional schools. Charter students also did better than their counterparts in reading.

On the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress, D.C. charters once again outperformed non-charters, according to an analysis by Todd Ziebarth, senior policy analyst for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Overall, Ziebarth said, D.C. charters -- like schools across the country serving low-income students -- produce subpar scores.

More than 70 percent of D.C. charter students are from low-income homes, compared with about 60 percent of students in traditional D.C. schools. And hidden behind the averages are individual charters that range from excellent to incompetent.

One middle school, the KIPP DC: KEY Academy in Southeast, has the highest test scores of any middle school in the city and has recorded some of the largest gains in achievement by low-income students in the nation.

But other charters have been plagued by fraud and mismanagement. For example, the New School for Enterprise and Development in Northeast had its charter revoked in the spring as charter officials and D.C. auditors raised questions about board member Charles E. Tate.

Tate, who also served as school president, was receiving an annual salary of $100,000 and had a contract that required the board to pay him $500,500 for work he had done before the school's 2000 opening. In addition to alleging financial improprieties, teachers and other staff members said the school's principal tried to alter transcripts to inflate academic performance. The school closed in June, shortly after it was raided by federal agents.

The problems extended into the classrooms, according to teachers and students, who described a school plagued by violence, disorganization and a lack of textbooks. Twelve percent of students tested "proficient" in reading, and 24.5 percent met that standard in math. The principal blamed the problem on the poor schools that students previously attended.

Then in July, the independent charter board closed Sasha Bruce, a school serving grades seven through 11 on Capitol Hill, saying the school had overspent its budget in three years and was projected to have a $150,000 deficit this year. Also, reading and math test scores didn't meet annual standards under federal law.

"The charters stink, too. That's what nobody wants to talk about," said Gina Arlotto, an activist whose children attend public schools on Capitol Hill and whose organization, Save Our Schools, is the lead plaintiff in the Two Rivers lawsuit. Parents with children in charters "are wearing it as a badge of honor -- 'Well, I'm going to the charter school' -- as if this was a really good decision. And, man, it's not. People really are choosing very blindly."

Working to Improve

Supporters argue that charters are spurring improvements in the traditional school system.

This spring, Janey and the Washington Teachers' Union signed a new contract with a number of innovations, including pilot programs at up to 10 schools where teachers will work longer hours and earn bonuses tied to student performance. Union officials said they agreed to the changes to help traditional schools compete with charters.

Meanwhile, KIPP's newest middle school charter, the WILL Academy, is sharing space with Montgomery Elementary in Northwest, where the two staffs will collaborate on teaching practices, discipline and curricula.

And Janey last year promised more autonomy to the principal and parents at Woodrow Wilson Senior High School in Tenleytown after parents upset about budget cuts discussed converting the school to a charter.

Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), who supports the expansion of charters, said he has tried to protect the traditional system by increasing its budget and authorizing $1 billion to modernize aging facilities.

Still, some public school parents look at the gleaming facilities, freshly hired teachers and other amenities at charters and complain that officials are doing little to help traditional schools compete.

"What I'm angry about is why is it so easy for them to get funding when it's so hard for us to get funding at the local schools, the schools that are working, the schools that are doing well," said Maureen Diner, a parent at Ross Elementary who is on the waiting list at Capital City. "Parents aren't going to charter schools because of the philosophy. Parents are going to charter schools because they know there will be art and phys ed and no teaching to the test."

The notion that traditional schools are being shortchanged is at the heart of the Save Our Schools lawsuit. The suit claims that school officials helped the mainly white and middle-class founders of Two Rivers avoid predominantly African American neighborhood schools. In addition to other support, school officials permitted Two Rivers to move into half of a building occupied by Eliot Junior High, an underenrolled school near RFK Stadium.

When the charter opened in 2004, the contrast was stark: Two Rivers students, many of them white, passed through a bright blue door to a freshly renovated space filled with art, bright lights and highly motivated teachers. Eliot students, all of them black, passed through a separate door into a dim and dingy building with roaches in the cafeteria and a stench in the bathrooms.

Two Rivers Principal Jessica Wodatch, a D.C. native who attended city schools, denies that the school was founded for white children. Instead, she said, parents wanted to create a place free of bureaucratic red tape where teachers could focus on educating children.

Two Rivers has attracted a diverse student body of about 200 children, about half black and a third white, and has a waiting list of 400. Among the students are Sondra Phillips-Gilbert's two children. She said she pulled her son out of nearby Gibbs Elementary after classmates assaulted him three times. The school was also plagued by mold and mildew, she said.

At Two Rivers, Phillips-Gilbert said, her son is thriving and the school welcomes her involvement.

"I don't have money for a private school. If you get rid of charter schools, you're telling the poor children that they're going to have to be locked up in this incompetent school district that doesn't care about them or their parents," she said. "Don't punish the charter schools because our children have an option. If you don't like to see thousands of students leaving DCPS, then do something."

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