Enrollment At Charters Soaring; Schools' Scores Aren't

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 21, 2008

Public charter schools are the growth industry of education in the District. While the city's traditional public school population has declined by a third since 1997, charter enrollment has mushroomed 400 percent.

Almost 22,000 students -- 30 percent of the public school population -- attend the taxpayer-supported, privately operated ventures. With 55 schools spread over 68 campuses, the District has the highest concentration of charters in any city except New Orleans. Charters are designed to provide an alternative to frequently underperforming neighborhood public schools. If the trends continue, charters could overtake D.C. public schools in enrollment within six years, according to a 2007 study by Fight for Children, a nonprofit advocacy organization

But popularity doesn't necessarily guarantee quality.

Since passage of the 1996 legislation that opened the District to charters, they have proven vulnerable to the same maladies that plague the city's conventional public schools, such as low student achievement and erratic management.

Charter school scores on the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System standardized test rose this year, but the increases were more modest than those produced in D.C. public schools, although the share of charter students demonstrating proficiency or advanced skills was higher. In 2006, 7 percent of charter schools met the adequate yearly progress (AYP) standards established by No the federal Child Left Behind law, compared to 19 percent of the traditional public schools.

"These schools are supposed to be innovative, experimental and show best practices. Failing to make adequate yearly progress . . . . is no best practice," D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) said in the spring. He co-sponsored, with council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D-At Large), a bill to check the robust growth rate of charter schools by limiting new ones to operating on just one campus in their first year. The legislation is pending.

The measure was largely in response to a plan by Center City Public Charter Schools to convert seven financially struggling Catholic schools to secular charters that would reopen this fall. Most charter operators take a year or so to set up their operations. But because the Catholic schools already had buildings, staff members and students, they pushed to complete the conversion in three months.

Center City will set up campuses on the sites of former parochial schools in Congress Heights, at the former Assumption School; Capitol Hill (Holy Comforter/St. Cyprian); Trinidad (Holy Name); Shaw (Immaculate Conception); Brentwood (St. Francis de Sales); Petworth (St. Gabriel's); and Brightwood (Nativity).

The quick turnaround also meant that the Center City plan was not included in the new budget, which appropriates $366 million for charters in 2008-09. It left city officials scrambling to fund the new schools.

The council's complaints seemed to register with the D.C. Public Charter School Board. At its June meeting, the board approved only one other application of the 10 it considered: National Collegiate Preparatory, a high school targeted to students in wards 7 and 8 that will open next year.

In 2007, the board approved six of 13 applications.

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