Four-year-old Elliott Vanderbilt paints vegetables and fruits during an art expedition class focusing on nutrition at Two Rivers Elementary School in Washington, in November. Nearly half of D.C. public school students attend charter schools. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

Dear new D.C. Public Schools chancellor:

If you had been around in 1998 when I was a reporter covering D.C. schools, you would have wondered, as I did, if charters could ever work in a city run by people so vehemently against them.

I mention that impression because this is my second letter to you, the not-yet-named leader of D.C. Public Schools, about two policies you should not disturb. The first, which I addressed last week, is the program encouraging teachers to visit students’ homes. The second is the city’s strong support for charters, astounding to those of us who remember their arrival two decades ago.

I attended a D.C. school board meeting then, when members were seething at having to approve new charter schools, independent of the school district but funded with tax dollars, under a deal worked out with Congress. Many public-school teachers and parents were in revolt against these interlopers and their freedom to ignore many district rules and the teachers’ contract.

Today, the situation is quite different. Here is what three of the nation’s most knowledgeable experts on school governance said about D.C. traditional public and public charter schools in 2016: “Washington is probably the best-functioning example of a mixed market within public education. By 2015-16, total public school enrollment in the federal city (spanning both charter and district sectors) was 87,443, with nearly 47 percent of students enrolled in charter schools. There were 112 charters and 111 district schools. Scores have risen in both sectors.”

That is from an illuminating new book, “Charter Schools at the Crossroads: Predicaments, Paradoxes, Possibilities,” by Chester E. Finn Jr., Bruno V. Manno and Brandon L. Wright. In most of the country, charter schools are still controversial and limited. But in the District, they are working with regular schools, and both sides benefit from the unique if fragile tranquility.

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and the D.C. Council preside over a dual system. The mayor appoints, with the council’s consent, the D.C. schools chancellor and the members of the Public Charter School Board.

Sadly, such a sensible system is too at odds with political realities to survive unless school leaders like you have the intestinal fortitude to stick with it. The teachers unions do not like charters. Large segments of the Democratic Party, which runs the District, do not like charters. The front-running Democratic nominee for president has sometimes supported charters but also complained (incorrectly in many cases) that they “don’t take the hardest-to-teach kids.”

In a smart piece in The Washington Post last month, Richard Whitmire, author of the new e-book on charters “The Founders,” noted that such schools have done well in the District in part because the city spends more on its schools than most places and because it has a weak union, a relatively peaceful racial climate and parents who are committed to the experiment.

But political winds shift quickly in faddish, wireless 21st-century America. In cities such as New York and Los Angeles, charters that once seemed secure have found themselves in trouble just because a new mayor or a new schools superintendent arrived.

The reasons for keeping charters strong in D.C. are obvious. As the authors of “Charter Schools at the Crossroads” pointed out, eight of the city’s 10 best-performing charters “serve students that are more than 75 percent low-income. Fifty-seven percent of D.C. charter pupils scored proficient or better on the ‘state’ test in 2014, marking the eighth consecutive year that the proportion of proficient charter pupils had risen.”

Children in both kinds of D.C. public schools are doing better than before, in part because the adults in charge of them are not plotting against each other. If you maintain that healthy relationship, wonderful things could happen. Who knows? Other cities might even follow the District’s daring example.


Jay Mathews