Autonomy Key to School Reform

By Kevin Chavous and Robert Cane
Monday, December 29, 2008

In key ways, discussion of school reform in the District is missing the forest for the trees. Perhaps the biggest misconception is that reform begins and ends with the city agency overseeing the school district. The District of Columbia Public Schools is only part of the story.

Since the first two self-governing public charter schools opened in 1996, they have steadily attracted more families. Today, more than one-third of D.C. students are educated in schools that enjoy autonomy from DCPS and the city government. Publicly funded, nonselective and nonsectarian, these schools have pioneered reform in the District after decades of neglect of public education.

Before charters arrived, a generation of low-income students was written off by a failed public education system. Just 12 years later, economically disadvantaged students -- defined as those eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches -- in secondary charter schools are twice as likely to score at advanced or proficient levels on math and reading tests as their peers in traditional public schools, based on federally mandated national tests.

By proving the cynics wrong and ending the monopoly of those who abdicated responsibility for children from some of our most vulnerable communities, D.C. public charter schools set the stage for the reforms being carried out by Mayor Adrian Fenty and Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee. As they work to improve education in the city, Fenty and Rhee would do well to seek ways to provide the traditional public schools with more autonomy.

Autonomy is the linchpin of the charters' success. Independence lets charters control their own academic programs, enabling them to respond quickly and effectively to the needs of their students. It allows schools to specialize in certain subjects and to hire teachers who will do the best job for the children. This freedom to innovate enabled charters to pioneer longer school days, weeks and years and to find new ways for parents to get involved.

Despite the growth in charters, myths abound. A persistent one is that charters are flush with funds unavailable to traditional public schools. In fact, both types of public school are funded under the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula, which ensures that students in the same grade or at the same level of special education are funded equally. About $3,000 per student goes to charters to pay for facilities, while DCPS schools receive about $5,000 per student from the city government's capital budget. The big foundations make grants to both types of schools.

Charters' autonomy enables them to get a bigger bang for the same buck. A public charter school principal can spend all the public money that his or her school receives directly on the school. The traditional public school counterpart can spend only what's available after the city's education bureaucracy takes its cut. Free from micromanagement, charters can allocate their funds in ways that provide the best value for their schools; for example, from 1999 to 2005, they completed renovations at less than half the cost expended by DCPS schools, according to an analysis by Friends of Choice in Urban Schools.

Charters not only perform better when the playing field is level, but they do so even when the law is not enforced.

For instance, D.C. law requires that charters be given first crack at empty school buildings, before condo developers or non-educational city agencies can bid for them. Yet the city has in most instances denied charters unused school facilities, forcing them into the commercial loan market to pay high costs for spaces that are often inadequate.

The issue of these bank loans was raised recently in The Post, leading some to confuse the freedom that charters enjoy with a lack of accountability and oversight. Charters do have overseers: They are accountable to parents who choose them for their children and to their regulatory body, the Public Charter School Board, a nationally renowned model of accountability. For 12 years, this board has been doing what the city has just begun for traditional schools: holding charters to high standards, tackling under-performance and replacing ineffective school leaders.

The District is poised to embark on a second wave of school reform, efforts we applaud. But in trying to improve education, the worst thing the government could do is reduce the autonomy of any D.C. schools. This would risk the academic success charters have achieved, which includes raising graduation rates, and would endanger their achievements in curbing absenteeism and violent crime in schools. Ultimately, it would prevent the successes that autonomy brings from being shared with traditional public schools to benefit every District child.

Kevin Chavous, who represented Ward 7 on the D.C. Council from 1993 to 2005, is a distinguished fellow with the Center for Education Reform. Robert Cane is executive director of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, a Washington-based nonprofit that advocates school reform in the District via the creation of public charter schools.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company