One company’s filing of the city's largest-ever charter application highlights the debate about D.C. education’s future. (Jared Soares/For The Washington Post)

It’s the latest sign that the District is on track to become a city where a majority of children are educated not in traditional public schools but in public charters: A California nonprofit group has proposed opening eight D.C. charter schools that would enroll more than 5,000 students by 2019.

The proposal has stirred excitement among those who believe that Rocketship Education, which combines online learning and face-to-face instruction, can radically raise student achievement in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

Rocketship’s charter application — which is the largest ever to come before District officials, and which might win approval this month — arrives on the heels of Chancellor Kaya Henderson’s decision to close 15 half-empty city schools, highlighting an intense debate about the future of public education in the nation’s capital.

A growing number of activists have raised concerns that the traditional school system, facing stiffer-than-ever competition from charters, is in danger of being relegated to a permanently shrunken role. And they worry that Washington has yet to confront what that could mean for taxpayers, families and neighborhoods.

“Maybe we need an entire school system full of charters,” said Virginia Spatz, who co-hosts a community-radio talk show on D.C. education. “But we need to have that after public conversation, not by accident.”

D.C. charter school enrollment still rising (The Washington Post/Source: OSSE)

Politicians appear to have heard the call. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) acknowledged in his State of the District address Tuesday that charters — which are publicly funded but independently run — are likely to soon educate half the city’s students.

“Certainly there are strengths to such an approach. But there are also challenges — challenges with which no city has yet grappled,” said Gray, who added that he has directed his education cabinet to develop a coordinated “road map for public education.”

Competition has forced both school sectors to improve, Gray said in an interview, and should be preserved. “I don’t believe in monopolies,” he said. “Anything that tips the balance too far in one direction or the other is not good for our children.”

D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), the influential chair of the council’s new education committee, also says the city has too long allowed charters and traditional schools to operate in isolation, without a vision for how they should coexist.

“Right now we have schools that pop up everywhere . . . competing against other established charter schools and traditional public schools,” Catania said. “I think we have a responsibility to help manage this process.”

Though he says he doesn’t want to slow charter expansion, Catania says he will push for “a momentary pause so that we can make sure that we’re all growing in the same direction.”

He says that lawmakers could influence charters’ growth by accelerating the closure of underperforming charters or — even more aggressively — by withholding $3,000-per-pupil facilities payments from new charters to discourage them from opening.

The city’s traditional public schools hemorrhaged enrollment for four decades before their student rolls flattened out at about 45,000 in 2009. Charter enrollment, meanwhile, has steadily climbed for the past decade. It jumped 10 percent this year, to more than 34,000, or 43 percent of all students.

Government attempts to “manage” and “plan” future growth could invite a battle with charter advocates, who have long argued that local lawmakers have no authority to regulate charter schools that were founded on free-market principles.

Those advocates say they welcome planning that would improve parents’ ability to navigate school choices and would allow more charters to move into surplus public schools buildings instead of scrounging for rental space in church basements or commercial buildings.

But they reject the prospect of anything that smells like a limit on growth. The city is too urgently in need of more good schools, they say.

“I’m not interested in joint planning as a cover to put some sort of moratorium on charters,” said Scott Pearson, executive director of the D.C. Public Charter School Board, which has unilateral authority to open new schools and close those that underperform.

Robert Cane, executive director of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, a pro-charter group, was more blunt.

“It’s a very bad idea for a government that cannot run an effective school system to try to run, in any way, shape or form, the much more effective charter school program,” he said. The traditional school system “is the government’s playground, and they should play in it — and leave the charters alone.”

Uncharted territory

Congress opened the door for D.C. charters in 1996. Their growth since has often been overshadowed by the efforts of Henderson and her predecessor, Michelle A. Rhee, to reform the city’s troubled school system.

Conceived as a way to give educators more freedom from government bureaucracy, charters also were meant to offer families alternatives to failed local schools.

And parents have flocked to them. Open to students across the city, charters conduct lotteries when demand exceeds available space, and waiting lists at the most sought-after schools carry thousands of names.

That’s evidence, national observers say, that D.C. charters have room to keep expanding.

“So long as there is a demand, you are going to continue seeing the growth, and it could very well marginalize the public school system,” said Nina Rees, president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, a Washington-based advocacy group.

Nobody knows what it would mean for the District to become a charter-dominated city. Outside of New Orleans — unique because Hurricane Katrina destroyed so much public infrastructure in 2005 — no American city is further along in the swing toward charters.

But there are plenty of questions. What happens when city officials funnel an increasing number of tax dollars to schools over which they have little direct control? How should charters’ citywide enrollment policies — which give families choice, but also mean kids are sometimes commuting an hour or longer to class — be reconciled with parents’ desires for neighborhood schools?

There are fears, too, that as charters grow, they will increasingly attract families who are equipped to navigate the school-choice world — leaving traditional schools with a greater concentration of the most difficult-to-educate children.

Charters can require parents to fill out an application and commit to volunteer hours, and they can expel students who fail to meet strict behavior standards. Traditional neighborhood schools, meanwhile, must take all comers.

“I’m dealing with a different set of raw material,” Henderson told the D.C. Council in January.

Perhaps the most important question is whether a charter-dominated city has a better chance of offering more good schools.

Henderson is not averse to charters and, in fact, has said she would like to have the power to authorize new charter schools herself. She says in some cases, charters are succeeding where the school system has failed.

Some D.C. charter schools have impressive achievement records, and on average charters have both a higher graduation rate than the traditional school system and higher average scores on the city’s annual standardized tests.

But performance varies widely, and nearly two decades after the charter movement took root in Washington, just less than half of all charter students are proficient in reading, according to 2012 standardized-test results, and 55 percent are proficient in math.

Advocates say those results can improve as the D.C. Public Charter School Board becomes more aggressive about closing schools with poor academic records, encouraging successful local charters to expand and recruiting national operators with a track record of success.

Rocketship is one such experienced operator. The organization runs seven San Jose, Calif., K-5 schools that have generated national buzz by posting some of the highest test scores among high-poverty schools in California.

Admirers include members of the District’s charter school board, which likely will vote to approve Rocketship’s charter application later this month.

Rocketship is “exactly the type of charter school operator” that the city should seek to attract, Pearson wrote in July.

“Their performance with new schools has been remarkable, among the best in the country with low-income kids,” charter board member Don Soifer said in an interview.

If its proposal is approved, Rocketship plans to open its first school of 630 students in the 2015-16 school year and add schools during the next four years. The organization aims to operate in wards 7 and 8, sections of the city with some of the highest poverty and lowest academic achievement levels.

The charter board also is considering a proposal from Virginia-based for-profit K12 Inc., which has proposed a 550-student school that, like Rocketship, would combine online and brick-and-mortar learning.

Another two dozen groups — including Los-Angeles Based Green Dot and New York-based Democracy Prep — have indicated that they intend to apply by March 1 for approval to open charter schools in the District as soon as fall 2014.

If history is any guide, most of those schools will not win approval. But the charter board is committed to giving a green light to proposals it deems promising.

“So many schools, including charter schools, are not offering the quality of educational services that we need to offer our students,” Pearson said. “The board has been, and continues to be, very comfortable authorizing what we believe will be high-quality additions to the city.”

Four new charters are scheduled to open this fall and Pearson said he expects total charter enrollment to grow by 8 percent in 2013-14, to more than 38,000 students.

That doesn’t mean the traditional school system must shrink, Pearson says, arguing that charters and traditional schools are both attracting families who previously would have moved to the suburbs or enrolled in private schools. Total city enrollment increased 5 percent this year, to more than 80,000, the fourth consecutive year of growth.

Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.