Editorial -- What D.C.'s Public Schools Can Learn From Charter Schools

Saturday, December 20, 2008

STUDENTS IN the District's charter schools on average outperform peers who attend the city's traditional public schools. They do so not because they come from more privileged backgrounds but because the charters are free to innovate and implement practices that work. The charter schools' success in educating poor and minority children should be celebrated, and it should help validate efforts by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee to bring similar changes to the traditional public schools. The charters' independence, so vital to their success, should be protected.

A recent Post analysis confirmed the "solid academic lead" of charter students over those in traditional schools. According to The Post's analysis, students in middle-school charters scored 19 points higher than their peers in regular schools on national reading tests and 20 points higher in math. Charters also did better on such measures as attendance and graduation rates. Teachers in the charters are more likely to be "highly qualified."

The Post statistics do not prove that charter schools will always be superior to regular schools; their performance, too, is uneven. Clearly, though, the "no-excuses" innovations of the best charters make a difference: longer school days, summer classes, an inclusive culture of parental involvement, and the power to hire teachers who are committed to a school's philosophy and dismiss teachers who aren't up to the job.

Much of the credit for the success of the charters must go to the volunteer public charter school board, which, in the span of a dozen years, has overseen the growth of a sizable school system. The Post investigation raised questions about whether its members, in particular Chairman Thomas A. Nida, paid sufficient attention to conflict-of-interest rules. It's important that the matter be investigated, and both D.C. Attorney General Peter J. Nickles and the city's campaign finance office are looking into the situation. The board should revise its practices to bring better transparency to its actions. But calls for a purge of board members are premature. Consider, for instance, that there were sound educational reasons for some of the actions that have been called into question (such as closing schools that were failing to adequately educate their students). It would be wrong to discount the important work done by the board, under Mr. Nida's leadership, in nurturing charter schools.

Even more ill-advised are proposals to change how the board is constituted and place it under city control. Autonomy from business as usual is what has made the charters a success. Just ask the parents who, largely through word of mouth, are now responsible for 26,000 District children enrolled -- and learning -- in charter schools.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company