The charter school issue has come to the fore in the D.C. mayoral sweepstakes. Unfortunately, all but one of the candidates have got this issue wrong -- not surprising since the editorialists of The Washington Post have, too.

Remember, charter schools are public schools in every important respect: They're open to all comers, financed by taxpayers and accountable to public authorities for their continued existence. But the school system bureaucracy doesn't run them. There's the (political) rub.

The District's school system thinks it owns the kids and has a right to the money. It's appalled that anyone else might start and run a public school; doubly appalled that some families would flee the system's schools for places they believe will keep their children safe and teach them to read and write. How inconvenient for the system. How embarrassing for its leaders.

The numbers aren't small. The District will have some 15 charter schools, enrolling 3,500 youngsters. That's about 5 percent of the pupil population and, at roughly $6,600 per student, could sop up roughly 5 percent of the school system's budget.

With elections coming, it's no surprise that so dramatic a change in the District's educational arrangements elicits noise from mayoral candidates. The position taken by nearly all of them follows a pattern familiar in other jurisdictions: Halt (or slow) the spread of charter schools before they seriously inconvenience the "system."

D.C. Council member Jack Evans is the most outspoken, describing "the whole {charter} movement {as} very troubling." He wants a moratorium on new charters. Other candidates would reduce the maximum number of charter schools allowed to open each year.

One hopes this hostility results from nothing more pernicious than a murky understanding of the nature of charter schools. Even The Post, in an editorial {"The Public Schools Succession," Aug. 18} was off-base in talking about how some teachers and students "have chosen to abandon the public schools for charter schools." Charter schools are public schools.

Creating new charter schools is a threat to established interests and -- unfortunately -- seems to be a threat to Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, who has voiced misgivings about them.

How should policymakers (and would-be policymakers) respond to the charter school movement? One candidate seems to understand its potential. Anthony A. Williams says, "Competition is here for public education, so we might as well use it to our advantage." That's precisely what a growing number of American communities are doing. For example, Detroit has three operational charter schools, seven more opening this fall and others under consideration. Detroit Superintendent David Snead comments: "The charter idea is helping encourage other schools in our district to examine what they are doing. I don't agree with those who are defensive. Charter schools are helping us move in the right direction." The District might do well to emulate Detroit. That radical change in public education is needed seems to be understood by nearly everyone, including Ms. Ackerman, who recently said, "I don't think people understand how broken the system is, and I mean really broken." She's right but doesn't seem to understand that charter schools can be part of the solution. She should add Washington to the list of communities using the charter option as leverage for improvement by declaring her intent to make every D.C. school a public charter school. Her first step? Begin this year to work with the emergency control board and the two D.C. authorities that can charter schools (a third can be created by the D.C. Council) to reconstitute the worst D.C. schools as charter schools, beginning in 1999. Each school would have a performance-based contract specifying what its students will learn.

Though required to comply with health, safety, and civic rights requirements, these schools would enjoy the programmatic, operational and fiscal autonomy that is crucial to any well-functioning organization. Some of the newly chartered schools might be operated by teams of teachers, even by the Washington Teachers Union. Others could be run by government and other nonprofit groups located in the nation's capital -- e.g., the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian, the National Geographic Society and the American Red Cross. Every (federal) Cabinet department might sponsor its own.

The candidates in the mayoral race (and other D.C. policymakers) should take their lead from Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry. He has proposed "a bold answer to the chaos in {public school} governance. Let's make every public school in this country essentially a charter school within the public school system."

Making that "bold answer" a reality should be at the top of every D.C. candidate's education agenda. The authors are senior fellows with the Hudson Institute.