Are we seeing the beginnings of the “New Orleanization” of the D.C. public school system?

There is new evidence suggesting that D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray is taking the initial steps in a move toward molding the system into one that has a small core of traditional public schools and a larger collection of independently run charter schools. For a lot of reasons, D.C. residents should be concerned.

Remember when Michelle Rhee quit as D.C. schools chancellor last October, insisting that she had to leave because the soon-to-be-new-mayor, Gray, wasn’t committed to her brand of reform? Wrong again.

Gray didn’t blink in staying on the path she plotted. And now, according to my colleague Bill Turque in this story, his administration has asked an Illinois firm with close ties to the charter school movement to figure out where schools are underenrolled and which communities are in need of schools.

What could that mean?

It means that Gray and other D.C. officials could be moving the District’s reform program, started under Rhee, into a new phase that leans toward the opening of many more charter schools. In her new role as head of the StudentsFirst advocacy group, Rhee has gone around the country promoting a reform agenda in which charters figure prominently, though her emphasis while chancellor was on the traditional schools.

Charter schools, which are public schools that are publicly funded but run independently from the traditional school bureaucracy, already educate 40 percent of the city’s 75,000 public schoolchildren. That percentage is far more than the national figure, which is 5 or 6 percent, in part because the District was used as an experiment by Congress to push school-choice initiatives that also included publicly funded vouchers.

The overall notion is that charter schools, which have independent administrations, have the freedom to be more innovative than traditional public schools, are not all burdened with expensive union contracts (although some charter schools are unionized) and can better address the needs of certain communities.

However, a 2009 study of U.S. charter schools, the largest of its kind to date, found that only 17 percent of charters were better, in terms of standardized test scores, than traditional public schools, and that 37 percent of charter schools got worse results.

Over the past five years, traditional public schools in the District have done marginally better on standardized test scores than the charters. But in truth, charter schools are separate entities and not a monolithic block, so that may be an apples and oranges comparison, even though it is made all the time.

The concern among some critics of charter schools is that there is less accountability than there is for traditional schools, that some of them get better scores by “counseling” out children especially difficult to educate, and that they are seen by some for-profit companies as money-making opportunities rather than schools that shouldn’t operate on a business model. There is also a continuing debate about whether charter schools by their very design — they require a parent to go through the process of applying — start out with students, even those living in poverty, who have more parental support than others and therefore have an advantage that could result in better test scores.

There are plenty of reasons for D.C. residents to be concerned about this contract and what it could mean for the city’s school system.

For one thing, officials didn’t really need to go to Illinois to find a company that could do a study of city demographics and school usage. There are people in Washington, D.C., who already have the information; for example, the 21st Century School Fund, in the District, has experts on the subject. It wasn’t, then, really necessary to have the $100,000 study funded by the Walton Family Foundation, which is a prime supporter of charter schools across the country.

Meanwhile, the Chicago-based Illinois Facilities Fund, which was chosen to do the study, is heavily involved in charter schools, and Deputy Mayor for Education De’ShawnWright, whose office is responsible for school facility planning, used to work in New Jersey and is a founding partner of the Newark Charter School Fund.

Wright told Turque that he hopes to use the results of the study to help the D.C. Public Charter School Board — a separate entity that authorizes the opening of, and monitors, the city’s charter schools — do its work. That suggests more of a collaboration in the future than exists today between the traditional school system and the charter board, a dynamic that would be important in a school system in which charters are given equal or even more importance than traditional schools.

Nobody in the District said that they are looking as a model to the New Orleans Recovery School District, but that is the one charter-dominant school system in the country, with nearly 75 percent of public schools being charters.

The New Orleans district has become the center of a lot of attention from reformers, U.S. officials and the mainstream media because of its own reports of rising test scores, but there are serious issues that are often breezed over — issues that matter in a discussion about the role of charter schools in public education.

For example, when the district trumpeted its test scores in 2009-10, it actually left out 30 percent of its schools, according to a report by Barbara Ferguson, board chair and attorney for Research on Reforms, a nonprofit foundation. 

Another big problem in New Orleans — and elsewhere where there are charter schools — is the issue of students with special needs. In New Orleans, so many couldn’t find charter schools that would enroll them that a complaint has been filed with the state Department of Education.

In Washington, D.C., 18 percent of students in the traditional public schools are special education students, while 11 percent of students in charter schools are designated special ed.

Charter schools across the country have largely lagged in addressing the needs of special education students as well as English Language Learners. And a few studies have shown charter schools to be more segregated than traditional schools, though charter advocates have pushed back on the results.

The question is not whether some charter schools are better than some traditional schools. Some are. The real issue is that many fear we are setting up a two-tier public education system. That is something Americans, the home of opportunity for all, should not allow.

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