Two Rivers Public Charter School pre-kindergartener students taking part in physical education class in the common area known as “The Greens" on April 11, 2012. (Mark Gail/THE WASHINGTON POST)

This spring, for the third year in a row, more than 1,000 families sought fewer than 50 available spaces at the Two Rivers charter school in Northeast Washington, which has produced some of the city’s best reading scores.

Parents love Two Rivers even though its elementary building has no cafeteria, library, auditorium or gymnasium. The only outdoor recreation space at the school, located in a converted auto-repair warehouse with a leaky tin roof, is a vest-pocket playground out front.

About a mile away is Walker-Jones, a traditional elementary and middle school, which has poor test scores and a $42 million state-of-the-art building. Farther to the northwest are the $72 million Alice Deal Middle School and $125 million Woodrow Wilson High School.

The contrast between Two Rivers and the gleaming traditional public schools nearby tells a larger story about education in Washington. While the District pours billions into rebuilding a city system that has more classroom space than it needs, parents are increasingly opting for charter schools. If trends continue, charter enrollment will surpass the traditional public school population before the end of the decade.

Yet even as charters soar in popularity, D.C. officials have often relegated these schools to second-class status, maintaining funding policies and practices that bypass charters and steer extra money to the traditional city school system.

D.C. officials contend that the differences are not inequities but the hallmarks of a different educational model. Charters, publicly funded but privately operated, benefit from being free of central bureaucracy, collective-bargaining agreements and procurement rules, they say.

Supporters here and across the country say the absence of those constraints helps to make charters an essential alternative to traditional public schools. The best of them have demonstrated an ability to close the achievement gap between rich and poor children, which has bedeviled public education for decades.

Critics regard the charter movement as an assault on a bedrock democratic institution — the neighborhood public school. They cite studies showing that most charters do no better, and often worse, than traditional schools in serving poor children. By siphoning off money and motivated families, they say, charters have left the traditional school system with fewer resources to serve the most disadvantaged students.

What’s not in dispute in the District is the robust growth of the charter sector. In 1998, the District’s traditional system served 95 percent of public school children. But what began as a congressionally mandated experiment to spur improvement in established public schools is now an institution in its own right. Enrollment has grown nearly tenfold since 2001.

Although charter schools represent just 4 percent of the nation’s public school enrollment, they serve 41 percent, or 31,562, of Washington’s 76,753 public school students — the highest concentration in any school district besides New Orleans.

The city’s 123 traditional schools have shown more overall growth on standardized tests over the past six years, but charters posted higher scores on the 2012 D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System. Their four-year graduation rate (80 percent) is 20 points higher than that of traditional D.C. high schools.

During his 2010 campaign, Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) promised to “bring an end to the days in which charters are pitted against traditional public schools for precious city resources.”

In e-mailed responses to questions, Gray cited initiatives he has launched to help charters, including increased special education funding and an accelerated process for turning over vacant city school buildings.

“I have kept my promise,” Gray said.

But charter educators, feeling misled, said Gray has ducked core issues of facilities, funding and fairness. The District is spending $5,986 per student this year for construction and renovation of city school buildings. Charter schools, not included in the capital budget, received $3,000 per student to lease or purchase buildings, an allotment that will dip to $2,959 in 2013 — a sector-wide decrease of $1.3 million — because of changes in federal funding policy.

“The expectation was that he would move to equalize,” said Donald Hense, chairman and chief executive of the Friendship Public Charter School system. “My question is, when does he plan to start?”

Separate and unequal?

The field next to Friendship Collegiate Academy along Minnesota Avenue NE is strewn with glass and trash. This is where the Friendship Knights, the District’s best high school football team last year, prepared for its championship season. It is also where the baseball team practiced this spring.

Since 2008, the city has upgraded at least seven public high school fields (including Anacostia, Cardozo, Eastern, Spingarn, Wilson and Woodson) with NFL-quality synthetic turf. At the edge of Friendship’s field, owned by the Department of Parks and Recreation, are two dank industrial storage bins that serve as locker rooms. Most of the Knights’ offseason weight-training program takes place in a third-floor hallway because the room set aside can accommodate only a handful of players.

It’s not just a matter of pride, but also safety, the players said. At baseball practice, junior Terrance Crestwell shagged flyballs with his right knee wrapped in an imposing white bandage, vestige of a ligament injury suffered in October while practicing as a linebacker on the substandard field.

“There have been a lot of injuries,” Crestwell said.

At first glance, it appears that the city’s public and public charter schoolchildren enjoy uniform funding under the law. It provides from $9,000 to $28,000 a year per student, depending on grade and level of need. But inequities are embedded throughout the system.

Traditional city schools are funded each spring based on projected enrollment for the coming academic year. The system overestimated its population for the 2011-12 school year by more than 2,000, meaning it received about $18 million for new students who did not turn up in the annual audited count. School leaders were not asked to return the funds.

Charter schools are financed in quarterly installments based on actual head count. If enrollment dips during the year, payments are reduced. If enrollment rises, payments increase. Charter educators say the dual standard makes no sense.

“I don’t know how you can see that as anything but unfair,” said Washington Latin Head of School Martha Cutts.

City schools benefit from other sources of cash that bypass charters. An independent commission reported to the D.C. Council this year that the city system receives from $26 million to $46 million annually from other city agencies for costs that charters must cover with per-pupil allotments. These include expenses for building maintenance and legal services. D.C. schools also have secured additional millions in midyear supplemental appropriations for cost overruns.

City officials contend that the inequities are neither as deep nor as clear-cut as depicted by the charter community. Facilities spending for city schools reflects the high cost of renovating buildings that have suffered from decades of neglect, they said. D.C. leaders also assert that their obligation to operate a system of neighborhood schools — where all within attendance boundaries have a right to enroll — is likely to always be more expensive than the charter sector, where school enrollments are capped.

“I don’t think it’s fair to call it inequity. It’s a different model of education,” said De’Shawn Wright, the District’s deputy mayor for education, who oversaw the opening of charter schools in New York City and Newark.

For every disadvantage cited by charter schools, Wright said, he can counter with one that city schools must deal with.

“We can play tit for tat, but I’m not interested,” he said.

D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson told the D.C. Council in February that the city has been too quick to help charter schools find facilities.

“We have not been planful in the way we’ve allowed the charter sector to blossom,” Henderson said, adding that charters often surround neighborhood schools and “starve” them of enrollment.

Other city leaders said worthy charter schools should be able to draw enough private backing to fill gaps in taxpayer support.

“Part of the idea was we released them from a lot of government regulations and requirements so they could innovate,” council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) said. “If no one wants to fund their innovation, you have to question their innovation.”

Some charter networks are prodigious private fundraisers. One of the District’s most celebrated charter school operators, the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP DC, with 2,600 students across nine campuses (and a 10th to open this fall), listed $4.9 million in contributions and grants in its 2011-12 budget, 9.5 percent of total revenue. The subsidies help fund the extended school day and year central to the KIPP program. (Donald E. Graham, chairman and chief executive of The Washington Post Co., sits on the KIPP DC board and personally contributed $75,000 last year, according to KIPP’s annual report.) D.C. public schools have also received significant private support, including more than $60 million over the past three years for teacher performance bonuses.

But among charter schools, there is a divide between haves and have-nots. The bulk of private support goes to school networks with ambitious expansion plans, such as KIPP. By contrast, “mom and pop” schools — even those with good academic records — usually receive minimal private support. Achievement Prep in Southeast, a high-performing elementary-middle school that also offers an extended day, listed $167,000 in donations this year, 4.5 percent of total revenue.

‘Not sustainable’

The city’s school construction program has produced a handsome new generation of buildings. Wilson High was reborn with a signature four-story, glass-enclosed atrium for $125 million, or $333 per square foot. H.D. Woodson, once a concrete-slab, eight-story “Tower of Power,” is now a sleek building bathed in natural light for $103 million, or $406 per square foot.

There are new charters, but compared with city schools, they are built on the cheap. E.L. Haynes Public Charter School celebrated placement of the final structural girder this spring atop a $23 million addition to its Kansas Avenue NW campus. It will eventually house 400 high school students.

The cost: $240 per square foot. To stretch the available dollars, school officials said they made painful trade-offs.

“We minimized the size of the classrooms, greatly reduced the size of the library, eliminated several spaces for small group study,” Haynes’s chief operating officer, James Henderson, told the D.C. Council in March. “If we had access to the additional . . . facilities funding that D.C. public schools is budgeted to receive, it would have greatly improved the quality of the space our students will be using next year.”

Most charters start life as an idea without a home. Because the city does not include charters in its capital budget, they fend largely for themselves in the commercial market. It means that many begin in church basements, retail and office space, or other unsuitable locations.

Even charter students in the best of circumstances can be squeezed compared with their city school peers. D.C. standards call for 140 to 200 square feet per student. The average in the charter sector is closer to 100, educators estimate. Washington Yu Ying, the Chinese immersion school that moved last year into a former Marist seminary near Catholic University, will be at 88 square feet per student this fall, according to co-founder and executive director Mary Schaffner.

“The facilities situation is not sustainable,” said Jennifer Comey, senior research associate at the Urban Institute.

Fledgling schools often flow serially through a shallow inventory of usable buildings. A basement space in Brookland, which housed Washington Yu Ying, became home to the Inspired Teaching Demonstration School when Yu Ying moved to its new building. Next year, Inspired Teaching will be based at the Manhattan Laundry Building on Florida Avenue NW, replacing Meridian Public Charter School, which is taking over the former Harrison Elementary.

This year, through the D.C. facilities allotment, charters will spend $124.4 million on mortgage and rent to banks and landlords, according to public records.

William E. Doar Jr. Public Charter School for the Performing Arts rents a converted warehouse along the railroad tracks on Edgewood Street NE for $102,000 a month. There is no parking, no outdoor recreational space. Grades four through eight are housed in windowless rooms underground.

Executive Director John Goldman recently negotiated a rent reduction with the landlord, Bethesda developer Fred Ezra. But Goldman said his experience is a strong case for a different way to house charter schools and that commercial landlords should not be involved.

“Their job is to maximize profits,” he said. “That doesn’t jibe with my mission of providing an education to low-income children.”


Vandals have thoroughly worked over Rudolph Elementary, a classic World War II-era red-brick school in Petworth. The school was built for 547 students, but enrollment dwindled to 228 by the time it was closed in 2008. Windows are smashed, and everything remotely valuable, down to the copper tubing in the boiler room, has been stripped away.

Rudolph is one of eight deserted campuses under the control of the Department of General Services, which manages surplus city property. Another nine remain in the hands of the D.C. school system.

While charter schools scuffle for decent space, the traditional city system has too many buildings for too few students. The District operates 123 schools for its enrollment of 45,191, an average of 367 students per building. By contrast, Montgomery County runs 200 schools to serve a student population of 146,497 (732 students per building). In Fairfax County, there are 194 schools for its 177,629 students (915).

Overall, D.C. schools are operating at 75 percent capacity, according to a recent study. At least 21 schools have occupancy rates below 50 percent. Officials are expected to announce a new round of school closings before the end of the calendar year.

Traditional school enrollment plummeted for decades before flattening out in the past couple of years, but charters have had difficulty gaining access to surplus buildings. Since 1996, 10 former city schools, including Gage, Syphax and Lenox, have become condominium developments. One is a health club. Overall, just 27 of 98 charter campuses occupy D.C. school buildings through lease, purchase or co-location with a traditional public school.

D.C. law requires that charters receive “right of first offer” on surplus school buildings. But just seven of the 28 schools closed by then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and then-Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee for low enrollment in 2008 are used by charters.

“I believe we might be a majority in the District if we had buildings to put people into,” said Robert Cane, executive director of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, or FOCUS DC, a charter lobbying group.

Victor Reinoso, deputy mayor for education under Fenty, acknowledged that the administration diverted some vacant schools to other uses. But Fenty, he said, moved many more charters into surplus schools than other mayors did. Some old buildings, he said, had no takers when they were made available.

City officials solicited proposals for four empty schools this spring, drawing responses from eight charter schools. But only one, Washington Latin, was selected. Deputy Mayor Wright has recommended that it receive a lease for Rudolph, the vandalized school in Petworth. Bids for the other three buildings, Young, J.F. Cook and Langston, all in Northeast Washington’s Ward 5, were rejected. The unsuccessful applicants included two of the city’s top performing charters, D.C. Bilingual and Washington Yu Ying. Other bidders were Richard Wright, Eagle Academy and Washington Mathematics Science and Technology.

Wright said their proposals failed for a variety of reasons, including poor academic performance, inadequate financial capacity and incomplete paperwork.

‘Politics and ego’

While charter enrollment has grown briskly, political support has been more difficult to secure.

For years, the D.C charter community was small enough to be regarded by the city’s political class as a scruffy, experimental alternative. Its modest scale kept issues of equity and uniformity on a back burner.

Most of the city’s energy went toward an overhaul of the traditional public system. When Fenty took control of D.C. schools in 2007 from the old Board of Education, he threw his power and prestige behind Rhee.

To the D.C. school leadership, handing over pieces of its system to charter operators was tantamount to General Motors donating factories to Toyota.

Some of that posture remains, charter educators say.

“It’s politics and ego,” Doar’s Goldman said. “Allowing charters to take traditional buildings is seen as an admission of failure.”

But as charter enrollment surges, Gray and Rhee’s successor, Kaya Henderson, seem to recognize that the city has grown two parallel school systems that often work at cross-purposes, duplicating resources and ideas.

“In some cases, we’re funding two failing systems,” Henderson said. “At some point, we need to look not just at the competition between the two sectors, but collaboration.”

She recently struck an agreement for Scholar Academies, a Philadelphia charter organization, to open a school this year at the former Shadd Elementary in Northeast. “So that they are not out spending public dollars trying to find new buildings,” she said.

Henderson, looking for ways to accelerate improvement in the city sector, has asked the council for authority to open charter schools, a power that rests solely with the D.C. Public Charter School Board. There is speculation that she will try to attract charter operators willing to run schools that offer some admissions preference to neighborhood families. Charters are open to students citywide, with enrollment determined by lottery if demand exceeds available space.

Before his resignation as D.C. Council chairman before pleading guilty to bank fraud, Kwame R. Brown (D) included a provision in the city’s 2013 budget for a task force to study neighborhood preference, which is employed in cities including Chicago and Denver. It may be a way to counteract what is perhaps the charter movement’s biggest political problem: the perception that charters are not true public schools.

Some families who share their neighborhoods with high-performing charters resent the fact that they don’t have an absolute right to send their children to them. Other critics find charters suspect because of their legacy as a creation of the Republican-controlled Congress in the mid-1990s. Financial backing from private foundations hostile to teachers unions is also an issue.

“There’s some good charter schools,” said Renee Bowser, a Ward 4 community activist (no relation to Ward 4 D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser) who lives near Rudolph Elementary.

“But I guess, overall, my philosophy of this movement is that I kind of fear it might be the end over time of public education. This narrative that charter schools are better and that non-union teachers are better, it’s not even borne out by studies.”

That kind of pushback has kept Rudolph empty for four years despite attempts by charter schools to gain access. Last year, the new Inspired Teaching Demonstration School thought it had a deal with the city, but community objections scuttled the plan. Many residents want to see a job apprenticeship training program housed in the school. Washington Latin’s bid to occupy Rudolph will have to be approved by the D.C. Council.

For the moment, Rudolph’s message marquee in front still carries news from its final days four years ago:

June Events

Award Assembly 9

Last Day of School

Thanks for the memories!