Scott Pearson is the executive director and John “Skip” McKoy is the board chair of the D.C. Public Charter School Board.
How many public charter schools should the District have? It’s a question that we hear often, in a city with one of the nation’s highest percentage of students attending public charter schools. Today, 44 percent of the city’s public school students attend one of the District’s 112 public charter schools.
Of all the nation’s school districts, only in New Orleans and Detroit do charter schools serve higher percentages. New Orleans turned nearly all of its public schools into charter schools. Would such a future be right for the District?
It may surprise some to hear this from leaders of the D.C. Public Charter School Board (PCSB), but we don’t think so. We believe that the balance we have, with a thriving public charter sector and strong traditional schools, is about right.
Having a choice in the District has served students well. Twenty years ago, the city’s public schools were at rock bottom. Quality and outcomes had plummeted, truancy was epidemic, patronage took precedence over merit in school hiring and parents sought refuge in private schools or in the suburbs. By the time public charter schools were authorized in the School Reform Act of 1995, fewer than 80,000 students were in District public schools, down from 150,000 in the mid-1960s.
The introduction of public charter schools sparked an educational renaissance. Charters offered options that were intensely focused on quality and student achievement — a refreshing change for parents who had become accustomed to hearing excuses for failure.
As charters grew in popularity, D.C. Public Schools responded. With strong mayoral leadership and a passionate commitment to reform from D.C. Schools chancellors Michelle Rhee and Kaya Henderson, DCPS started emphasizing accountability. It gave parents more and better information about schools. It promoted teachers on the basis of classroom performance rather than seniority. Additional funding for facilities improvements helped to round out this new commitment to educational excellence.
The result: Student test scores in reading and math across both public and public charter schools have been rising, as are graduation rates. Indeed, by almost any measure, D.C. students are much better served than they were 20 years ago. And parents are taking notice. Enrollment across both sectors began growing three years ago. For the first time since the 1960s, total public school enrollment in the District is growing.
DCPS and charters have played an essential role in this turnaround. Charter schools offer a variety of educational models. College prep, dual-language immersion, science and technology education, legal and civic studies or hands-on, experiential learning are just a few of the choices available in D.C. public charter schools. This creates a mix of schools, no one of which is right for every child, but the whole of which provides many options for parents to find the right fit for their child.
Charter schools’ intense focus on quality, culture and accountability undergirds successful school reform efforts. As the only authorizer of charter schools in the District, PCSB takes seriously its responsibility to ensure that only schools meeting educational and management standards stay open. Poor performers that fail to improve are closed.
Charter schools also offer citywide enrollment, which tends to create more diverse student bodies than traditional neighborhood schools. Charters create communities around learning rather than geography. Both have value, and with two systems of public education, parents get to choose.
Strange as it may sound, choice is what parents would risk giving up if all public schools in the District became charter schools. That’s because charters would be expected to act more like neighborhood DCPS schools. As New Orleans has done, slots would be reserved for children living within a certain radius of a school. Charters’ flexibility in enrollment and relocation would be limited. Closing failing schools would become more difficult. Even if all the evidence suggested that a school wasn’t succeeding, local residents and political leaders may prefer to preserve what they view as an important neighborhood institution.
Ultimately, regulatory pressures would force charter schools to become more homogenous. This would reduce variety and limit choice, a powerful engine for school improvement.
Right now, the District has the best of both worlds: a vibrant charter sector that offers a wide range of learning models from some of the best school leaders and a strong, improving and growing DCPS that has responded to charter competition by revitalizing its commitment to quality. D.C. schools are nowhere close to perfect. But the current model, with two public school systems pushing each other to be better and cooperating whenever possible, is proving to be the right mix for the District’s schoolchildren.