For years, District residents have forecast — for better or worse — a future where charter schools consumed neighborhood schools. And with charter school enrollment growing every year for nearly two decades, that day has seemed not too far away.
But this year, the percentage of students attending charters in the District has leveled off, with 44 percent of school-age city residents enrolled. At the same time, the city’s traditional public schools marked their third consecutive year of growth.
Leaders of the D.C. Public Charter School Board said in a Washington Post op-ed recently that the city’s balance — “with a thriving public charter sector and strong traditional schools — is about right.”
The message from Executive Director Scott Pearson and board Chairman John “Skip” McKoy was met with relief by advocates of neighborhood schools and disbelief from some who want to see more aggressive charter school growth in one of the most closely watched school reform efforts in the nation.
“They said the mix is right now, but the mix cannot be right, because there are still thousands of kids who are in schools that are not working,” said Andy Smarick, a charter advocate and partner at Bellwether Education Partners in the District.
He argued in an education blog that the board’s position signaled the close of an “exhilarating chapter of reform” and suggested that the District should approve a second charter school authorizer that would be willing to take the city to the next level of growth.
Pearson and McKoy later clarified the statement they made in the op-ed in The Post, saying they are not calling for a pause in charter school growth. The charter board is considering six applications for additional charter schools this spring. But Pearson and McKoy reiterated support for a neighborhood school system that has been making substantive improvements and also cautioned that growing much larger could lead charter schools to sacrifice some of their autonomy.
Their comments come as Deputy Mayor for Education Jennifer C. Niles is poised to launch a task force to study how charter and traditional schools can increase their collaboration.
There has been a groundswell in recent years for the city to make more efficient use of taxpayer funds and streamline duplicative school programs in an environment in which additional schools are cropping up every year.
Last year, many criticized the location of a campus of Harmony Public Schools, a Houston-based network, which opened a science and technology-focused elementary school across the street from Langley Elementary in Northeast. Langley is a traditional public school with the same academic focus as the Harmony school.
This year, advocates of neighborhood schools are protesting plans by Washington Global, a charter middle school approved in May, to open less than a half-mile from Jefferson Middle School, near L’Enfant Plaza. Jefferson has a program similar to Washington Global’s school and is working to gain support.
Charter advocates note that the scarcity of school facilities hinders location-based planning. And many argue that the competition, even in close quarters, is good for school quality.
D.C. Council member David Grosso (I-At Large), chairman of the Education Committee, said he thinks the location of schools is a key issue the task force should take on.
Locating new schools is just one of many issues facing charters in the District, as well as in cities across the country where charters are growing, including Kansas City and Cleveland. Charter leaders are looking at how to handle families that move into the district in the middle of the year, as well as how to meet the needs of special-education students in new ways.
“This is the question of the future in the charter school world — how each city will manage growth,” said Greg Richmond, president of National Association of Charter School Authorizers.
In New Orleans, where nearly all children are enrolled in charters, the schools offer preferences to neighborhood students in a lottery, something that D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has advocated and the D.C. charter leaders have largely resisted.
New Orleans charters also offer the same number of seats each year and “backfill” them when there are vacancies, something District charters are not obligated to do.
“Having two strong systems reduces the pressure to regulate charter schools as though they were the only public schools in the city,” Pearson and McKoy wrote recently in Education Next, an online publication that covers reform.
While many charter advocates resist regulation, they disagree that a slowdown is the best way to handle growing pains.
Robert Cane, executive director of FOCUS, a charter advocacy group in the District, said the city could come up with more creative solutions to manage a charter-dominant system.
Ultimately, he said, it is parents who should decide how many charter schools there will be and that the long waiting lists at charter schools are a sign of what parents think.
“Parents are speaking, and what they are saying is that we need more charter schools,” he said.