The District’s finances were in shambles. The city’s schools were widely underperforming. Drugs and violence continued to decimate the city’s poorest neighborhoods in the 1990s, rendering Washington the nation’s murder capital.
Malcolm “Mike” Peabody, a real estate developer and activist, believed that the failing schools and a lack of opportunities for poor black residents were a civil rights issue. He wanted to mend these impoverished neighborhoods by improving schools, but he thought it would be impossible given the hold the teachers union had on the school system.
His solution: public education that could exist outside the D.C. Public Schools. He started a local charter school advocacy organization, becoming one of the leading voices in the nascent education movement, which advocated for schools that could receive public funding but function apart from a traditional public school system’s bureaucracy.
“This was the next major thing in civil rights,” said Peabody, now 88. “I’m not for charter schools, I’m for a better education.”
The District’s charter school movement turned 20 at the start of this academic year. During the past two decades, charters have grown from three schools educating 160 students to more than 100 independent schools that educate almost 42,000 students, close to half of the District’s public school enrollment.
The city has one of the highest percentages of students enrolled in charter schools in the country, behind New Orleans and Detroit. School choice advocates hail the city’s charter schools as a model for the nation, while critics say that parents have more chance — a lottery ticket to get into one of a limited number of sought-after schools — than real choice.
When the charter movement began in the mid-1990s, the D.C. financial control board was in place, with a federally appointed panel managing most day-to-day city functions. Peabody said it was a perfect time to seek federal legislation allowing charter schools.
The District’s charters were approved by a Republican Congress — led by then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich — in April 1996, over the objections of many public school officials. The legislation was viewed as a politically palatable alternative to private-school vouchers, and it ultimately won bipartisan support. The legislation also allowed city funds to be allocated to adult education charter schools.
Erika Bryant — executive director of the Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom Public Charter School, one of the city’s first charter schools, founded by Bryant’s mother — recalls the initial wariness of parents to remove their children from the traditional public school system. She said the first children to enroll in the school were from the city’s poorest families, those who had lost faith in the public schools but didn’t have much other choice.
About 90 percent of students at Elsie Whitlow qualified for free and reduced-price lunches. Now, about 50 percent do, Bryant said, indicating that many in the city’s growing middle class are also attracted to charter schools.
“More parents are not just now comfortable with sending their kids to charters, but they want to,” Bryant said.
Many of the city’s top-performing charter schools — including Washington Latin, BASIS DC and Washington Yu Ying — now attract long wait lists each year because of their academic successes.
Charter schools’ academic performance varies widely, but on the whole, charter school students post slightly higher scores on annual math and reading tests and graduate at slightly higher rates than students in traditional public schools.
While some tout the city’s charter schools as examples of how school choice can rescue students from struggling public school systems, the charter movement also has raised numerous concerns about its effect on local schools and the ability for the public to oversee how they are spending taxpayer funds.
Traditional public school advocates argue that the charters strip neighborhood schools of students and resources. They don’t have the same legal obligation to teach the city’s toughest students, and some charter schools outright fail. And while the D.C. Public Charter School Board oversees the city’s charter schools, each operates as its own school system, which has led to issues involving transparency and accountability, especially when schools contract with for-profit management companies.
In 2013, local and federal officials alleged that managers at the District’s Options Public Charter School used the school to enrich themselves with millions of tax dollars meant for at-risk and disabled students. A former senior official at the charter school board who was responsible for financial oversight of the schools was alleged to have been part of the scheme. Options reopened under new leadership in September 2014.
When charter schools first opened in the District, the most high-profile exposure the average resident had to them was in 1997, when the principal of Marcus Garvey Public Charter School was convicted of assaulting a reporter. The school closed soon after amid financial management concerns.
“We’re all in it for accountability,” Peabody told The Washington Post in 1998. “If Garvey gets closed, that is good news. Schools that don’t do it right ought to close.”
At the start, there were two authorizers that approved new schools or closed bad ones: the D.C. school board — then overseeing all D.C. public schools, and widely seen as troubled — and the Public Charter School Board. When mayoral control passed in 2007, the old school board went away and all charter schools were brought under the charter board, which has a national reputation for holding schools accountable, closing those that don’t meet academic targets.
At a recent event celebrating 20 years of charter schools, Scott Pearson, the executive director of the Public Charter School Board, warned a room full of parents and supporters that despite charters’ large presence in the District, the movement is still in its nascent stages and charter schools are still political lightning rods. He said advocates should always be prepared for pushback and threats to funding.
“Every one of you is part of a revolutionary change in public education,” Pearson said. “It’s important that we all realize that and feel that so when there is someone who says we shouldn’t do it that way — we should fund it less — you are part of the movement that needs to stand up and say ‘yes.’ ”
Going forward, Pearson wants further collaboration between D.C. Public Schools and charter schools. He views the competition between the two sectors as healthy, one that forces both to find creative ways to educate children. He wants to develop a program that allows charter high school students to take courses at D.C. public schools, and vice versa.
Pearson said he wants to continue to bring expulsion and suspension rates down. Charter schools have long had higher rates of suspensions and expulsions, giving opponents the chance to argue that charters dump the most challenging students back into the traditional public school system.
Pearson doesn’t believe charter schools will upend the city’s traditional public schools; he says he expects both sectors to grow as the city’s population rises.
It’s unclear what Donald Trump’s presidency could mean for education in the nation’s capital. Trump has said he wants to expand school choice through vouchers, charter schools and magnet programs, but Pearson said the new administration has him nervous because there has been no talk of how to hold schools accountable.
“I’m concerned that they will overplay their hand and try to impose a radical plan of school choice that does not have any accountability,” Pearson said. “Our school choice works here because it has an accountability component.”