D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray and Chancellor Kaya Henderson are discussing a plan to restore the District’s power to create public charter schools as part of an effort to raise the quality of education in low-income communities.
The measure, if adopted, could accelerate the already robust growth of publicly funded, independently operated schools that serve 41 percent of the city’s 77,000 students across 98 campuses. The D.C. Public Charter School Board is currently the only entity that can authorize the opening of a charter school. The District government relinquished chartering power in 2007 when the mayor took control of the traditional school system from the old D.C. Board of Education.
Officials cautioned that the idea of adding the District as a second charter authorizer is at a preliminary stage, and that the mechanics of adopting such a change remain unclear. Gray has directed Deputy Mayor for Education De’Shawn Wright to explore the legal and procedural issues surrounding the measure.
It also comes at a time of intense discussion about the future shape and direction of public education in the city. A major new study commissioned by the city concluded that the District needed thousands of additional “quality seats” in schools serving poor neighborhoods. It recommended turning around or considering the closure of more than three dozen schools and the recruitment of high-performing charter organizations as one way of improving educational quality.
Henderson voiced unconditional support for chartering authority Thursday at a D.C. Council hearing.
In response to a question from Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), Henderson said the traditional school system would benefit by giving schools the kind of freedom that charters enjoy.
“What we know is that autonomy leads to innovation and success,” Henderson said. She added that she viewed restoration of chartering authority not as a means of competing with the charter board but as way to collaborate and move with dispatch to place good schools in underserved neighborhoods.
Too often, Henderson said, the city’s two education sectors have worked at cross purposes. In some cases, she said, new charter schools “starve” nearby traditional public schools, or ultimately starve each other. She did not offer specific examples, but she said the net effect was that the city was “funding two failing systems.”
“I think we’re at a moment in time,” Henderson said of the city’s school reform effort, when “we need to look at not competing but collaborating.”
As an example, Henderson cited Stanton Elementary in Ward 8, which is in its second year of operation by Philadelphia charter operator Scholar Academies under a contract with the city. While the charter group struggled last year, Henderson said the school has shown significant improvement.
“We are not going to turn Stanton around in one year,” Henderson said. “However, the progress I have seen makes me confident that Stanton can serve as a model for improving our schools.”
Scott Pearson, executive director of the D.C. Public Charter School Board, said he had no objection to the District becoming a charter authorizer, as long as it led to the creation of quality schools.
“It’s actually considered by many to be best practice to have multiple authorizers,” Pearson said, explaining that it gives charter applicants more than one venue for winning approval.
But he added that while there some examples of school districts that have done well as authorizers, many do not.
“You tend to have two big risks with a school district being an authorizer,” Pearson said. “The first is that its priority number 25 and they don’t give the care and attention that it needs.” Critics say that was a shortcoming of the old Board of Education as an authorizer.
“The second risk is that they put many more controls and conditions and oversight on the schools than than an independent authorizer would.” Pearson said the result is a ”faux charter school.”
D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D) said he was receptive to the idea, but made no commitments. “I do not have plans to introduce any legislation that would give DCPS chartering authority at this time,” he said in a statement Thursday afternoon. “I will bring all of the relevant parties to the table before making any final decisions regarding whether this is an appropriate role for DCPS.”
One especially sensitive political issue surrounding charter authorization is the city’s relationship with unionized teachers. Most charter schools are non-union. Washington Teachers Union President Nathan Saunders said that he doesn’t reject the idea out of hand, but that the union has to be in the mix.
“If the mayor believes this is a way to abandon unions, then it could be disastrous,” Saunders said. “We are very interested in working to make schools competitive and we think we can offer a superior product.”
Henderson’s predecessor, Michelle A. Rhee, and then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty also floated the idea of reclaiming charter power. But the plan, raised in the midst of a contentious contract fight with the teachers union, did not gain traction. Henderson said that she has received inquiries from charter operators, both currently working in the city and elsewhere, interested in partnering with the D.C. school system. She declined to name the operators.
Henderson said she envisioned charter groups taking over distressed schools such as Stanton or starting new ones with authorization from the District.