Numerous reports have documented the failure of the D.C. public schools to educate a generation of young people. The D.C. School Reform Act of 1995 addressed this failure by creating public charter schools.
Only three years after the School Reform Act became law, 19 charter schools are operating in the District with 3,500 children enrolled -- or about 5 percent of the city's public school population. This number could double next year if 10 newly chartered schools open and the existing charter schools expand. However, funding and facilities problems could stop this valuable reform movement in its tracks.
Under the reform act, both D.C. public schools and public charter schools must operate according to the same per-pupil funding formula. Money should follow students to the school of their choice.
This hasn't happened. D.C. public schools kept all of their funding last year, and Congress provided supplemental funding for the charters. As a result, the concept of competition was shortchanged.
D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams recently crafted a solution to this problem -- an escrow account -- to ensure that funds will follow students if they choose a charter school. But the D.C. Council rejected this idea and underfunded charter schools by $30 million -- putting all charter schools at risk of closing if funding isn't provided.
The reform act also required that charter schools be given a "preference" in the disposition of more than 60 surplus public school buildings in the District. The Emergency Transitional Education Board of Trustees translated this preference requirement into the provision of a 15 percent discount on purchases. But charter schools cannot compete against private developers, even with the discount. The result is that not one charter school has succeeded in buying an empty building in three years of trying. School leaders acknowledged in a congressional hearing last month that they have done a poor job of managing school dispositions to the charters.
We read about "problems" at charter schools, but who can run a program, create a budget or plan for the school year without ensured funding or a safe, accessible site? Yet despite these huge obstacles, charter schools are proving themselves to have a vital part in educational reform.
Without enforcement of the D.C. School Reform Act, some charter schools will close this summer. Others won't be able to reopen in September. Congress and the D.C. government have an obligation to enforce the law and protect the rights of educators, teachers, parents and students in public charter schools. All children in the District have the right to a public education that prepares them for success. Charters are a step in that direction. They need predictable access to funds and facilities now.
-- Jack McCarthy
is a trustee of the Washington Math Science Technology Public Charter High School.