ONLY 34 PERCENT of D.C. public-school students are in top-quality schools. The District — particularly struggling neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River — is in urgent need of schools that can perform. So one would think that the city would be clamoring to welcome a renowned charter nonprofit that wants to bring its record of educational success with disadvantaged students to the nation’s capital.
Instead, there is misplaced concern about the growth of charter schools and worrying talk about whether they should be curtailed.
Rocketship Education, which operates some of the highest-performing elementary schools in California, has submitted an application to open charter schools in the District, targeting underserved students in Wards 7 and 8. The proposal — as well as interest from other national charter networks — comes, The Post’s Emma Brown reports, as an increasing percentage of public-school students attend charter schools instead of traditional schools. The 34,673 students enrolled in charter schools last fall represent 43 percent, up from 41 percent in 2011, of the city’s public-school students, and officials envision a day when half the city’s public-school students will attend charters.
Some worry that this growth weakens traditional schools and could lead to a shrunken system that could not operate a viable system of neighborhood schools. Never mind that the competition from the charter schools helped spur traditional schools to undertake needed reforms or that recent years have seen a stabilization of enrollment in the public-school system and even a slight increase this school year.
D.C. Council member David Catania (I-At Large), chair of the newly created education committee, said that he doesn’t want to stand in the way of charter expansion. But he expressed concern that the two systems have too long operated in isolation from each other. His suggestion in the Post report of “a momentary pause” — and his hint that lawmakers might withhold the facilities allowance from some charters — has alarmed charter advocates.
Why, they ask, pause a reform that is clearly working? Charters boast a higher graduation rate than does the traditional school system, and students in charters, on average, perform better on standardized tests. These accomplishments come even as charters educate a higher share of students eligible for federal lunch subsidies.
There is no question that performance among charters varies greatly. But the D.C. Public Charter School Board, particularly under the leadership of Executive Director Scott Pearson, has shown a willingness to close underperforming schools. Since charter schools were established in 1996, nearly one in three charters has been closed, and for every application the board accepts, two are rejected.
Mr. Catania is right about the need for better collaboration, which appears to be improving under Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s administration. Issues — such as the outmoded funding system and stinginess in making shuttered school buildings available to deserving charters — still demand attention. But with such hunger for better schools — 15,000 applicants were turned away by D.C. charter schools last year — those willing to tackle the city’s educational challenges should not be discouraged.