The D.C. Public Charter School Board two years ago created a fast track for experienced charter operators with successful records in other cities to apply to open schools in the District.
The effort brought in California-based Rocketship, which plans to open its doors in Anacostia next fall, as well as Texas-based Harmony and New York-based Democracy Prep, which opened schools this year.
But this year, the board received no applications from out-of-state operators, and overall applications dipped slightly compared with recent years.
In 2011, the D.C. Public Charter School Board received 19 applications. In each of the past two years, it received 13. This year it received 10, including two applications the board announced last week that offer plans to restart Options Public Charter School, a small alternative school that is under court receivership.
Charter school advocates said they do not see a waning interest in building charter schools in the District, where the charter school movement has experienced steadily growing enrollment. Numbers of applicants have fluctuated widely in the nearly two decades that charter schools have been operating in the city, but some are surprised that there have not been more applications from high-performing charters from other parts of the country.
“I would have expected, given D.C.’s reputation, that we would have more interest,” said Don Soifer, a member of the D.C. Public Charter School Board.
The city has some of the highest per-pupil spending in the country, charter-friendly politicians, strong philanthropic support, and a metropolitan environment that is attractive to many potential teachers and school leaders. Such key advantages have set the stage for D.C. charter schools to enroll one of the highest shares of public school students in the country, with 44 percent of students enrolled.
But nationally, there is a great deal of competition for a relatively small number of charter school operators that have produced strong results in the most challenging inner-city environments.
“Every one wants them,” Soifer said. Some cities offer buildings to help entice reputable operators. In the District, suitable facilities remain a significant challenge for charters.
Some advocates say the more rigorous application process in the District might also be a disincentive for prospective applicants.
“You cannot underestimate the grueling process of applying,” said Naomi Rubin DeVeaux, deputy director of the charter school board.
She said experienced operators have to show a three-year track record of academic success and must demonstrate a strong understanding of the communities they would serve in the District.
There has been a significant push across the United States, particularly among philanthropists, to spread the academic experience of successful charter schools to more students. But progress has been slow.
“We as an education community talk a lot about the potential benefits of going to scale, but in operational terms, it’s not clear that it’s going to happen,” Soifer said.
Rocketship officials announced recently that they are dialing back ambitious plans to expand and are instead focusing on four regions, including the District. Leaders cited difficulty navigating varying charter regulations and environments. Last year, Rocketship also saw test scores drop amid instructional changes and enrollment growth.
DeVeaux said the board is equally interested in growing new talent from near and far. “Some of our best schools were start-ups,” she said, citing Yu Ying and Mundo Verde as examples. “That’s where the next great idea comes from.”
The process for high-performing charter schools in the District that want to expand is much easier, DeVeaux said. Thurgood Marshall Academy and Two Rivers were recently approved to open new campuses in the fall.
Prospective first-time operators were invited to apply along with experienced operators this fall. Both applications that the board received outline plans to turn around Options, a Northeast school for at-risk students that has been in turmoil since its former leaders were accused last year of diverting more than $3 million from the school through contracts to companies they founded.
One application is from the current leaders of Options, who propose to continue efforts to transform the school and to reopen it as Kingsman Academy. The second is from Phillips Programs for Children and Families, an organization that operates private special education and nontraditional schools in Maryland and Virginia.
Across the country, there is a growing emphasis on charter school quality over quantity, as many low-performing charter schools have closed. Authorizers are looking for more detailed financial and academic plans, advocates say.
“We want good people to charter schools in the District that are going to be successful,” said Robert Cane, executive director of FOCUS, a pro-charter group. “If there are five applications one year, fine. One, fine. Ten, fine. It doesn’t matter. What we are always concerned about is that we want the Public Charter School Board only to charter those schools that are extremely promising,” he said.