D.C. Public Schools is not equipped to improve its lowest-performing schools and should have the ability to convert them to charter schools, according to a report being released this week by the Progressive Policy Institute.

What the traditional school system is missing is greater autonomy to create specialty programs, extend school days, shut down failing schools or replicate high-performing ones, the report said.

“For struggling schools in poor neighborhoods, no strategy has been more effective,” said the report, which was written by David Osborne, director of the institute’s Reinventing America’s Schools Project.

D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson has long said that she would like to use charters as a tool to turn around low-performing schools.

Former mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) pursued a plan to give her that power, but the proposal was unpopular politically, with some charter advocates saying that chancellor-authorized charter schools would lack true independence, and the teachers union saying that chartering authority would give the chancellor a way to avoid working with the union to improve the system.

[From the archives: D.C. mayor to seek chartering authority for schools chancellor]

The issue is likely to resurface this fall, as the chancellor lays the groundwork to open a new kind of school — an all-boys preparatory school east of the Anacostia River that will be a centerpiece of her efforts to focus new resources and attention on young male African Americans and Latinos.  She is modeling the school on Urban Prep, a charter school in Chicago, in partnership with its founder.

Henderson has been frustrated by union pushback on her efforts to extend the school day, something charter schools often do as a matter of course.

D.C. Council member David Grosso, chairman of the education committee, said there are many ways to think about increasing flexibility, short of handing over the reins to outside charter operators. “If the chancellor would like to have more flexibility, it does not mean that all of a sudden schools will become charter schools, nor should they,” he said.

The report, “A Tale of Two Systems: Education Reform in Washington D.C.,” was funded by the Walton Family Foundation and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation. The Washington-based Progressive Policy Institute promotes market-based solutions to public policy issues.

The new study looks at the history of education reform in the city and includes research showing greater academic improvements in charter schools. It compares District and national test scores that show bigger gains for charter schools, particularly among African American and poor students.


From the institute’s report: Reading proficiency rates are higher at charter schools (in red) than traditional public schools (in blue) in Ward 8 and other high-poverty parts of the city.

It notes that comparisons are difficult because charter and traditional schools serve different demographics. Charter schools serve families who actively choose their schools, which can indicate a higher level of family commitment to education. D.C. Public Schools serve more students in crisis, who are are homeless or returning from jail, experts say. Also, charter schools don’t accept students after a certain month of the year or grade level, so they tend to serve a more stable group of students.

But the report argues that the governance model is the most important difference in the larger gains.

“It creates an environment in which the extraordinary measures necessary to effectively educate poor, minority children are not only easier to implement, they are virtually required if schools are to survive,” the report says.

In an interview, Osborne predicted that in 30 to 50 years, most urban districts will have mostly charter schools or other types of schools that are given more autonomy and expected to perform or be closed. “The magic is not in the word ‘charter,’ it’s in that arms-length relationship with the system,” he said.

At a hearing before the D.C. Council’s education committee in June, Henderson made a case again for chartering authority.

“If we believe that the kinds of autonomies and flexibilities that [charters have are] producing better results for lower-income kids, then I should have those flexibilities and freedoms as well,” she said.


From the institute’s report: Math proficiency rates are higher at charter schools (in red) than traditional public schools (in blue) in Ward 8 and other high-poverty parts of the city.

Correction: An earlier version of this report misspelled the last name of the Progressive Policy Institute’s David Osborne.