With the school year underway, I recently found myself in a discussion with my landlord about where his two daughters attend elementary school. He told me they both commute about 45 minutes each way to attend a KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) charter school in Southeast Washington.
His reason for supporting the choice was simple: Having grown up in Northeast, he would never place his daughters in a public school like the one he attended. But for me, this conversation reflected a problematic omission from the school-choice dialogue: the forgotten promise of charter schools and the false choice that parents such as my landlord face as a result.
Charter schools, which are public in nature but operate independently of the traditional public school system, were first approved by the Minnesota legislature in the early 1990s. Originally, they promised to serve as isolated laboratories of innovation whose successes could be replicated in struggling traditional public schools.
Some charter schools have proved what can be accomplished in high-poverty communities, but the notion of using those lessons to strengthen traditional public schools has not been executed with similar zeal. Consequently, many now view charter-school expansion as a solution itself.
In the District, those supportive of this strategy point to the well-known theme of school choice. Parents are voting with their feet, we are told. Yet as any political election reminds us, the exercise of choice is a reflection of the options provided. Almost any parent — certainly including my landlord — would much rather send his or her child to a good public school down the street than enter a lottery to send that child on a long commute to a charter school.
Moreover, lost in the focus on charter-school expansion are critical questions about the sort of city Washington might be if our neighborhood public schools continue to disappear. Might community bonds be loosened? What engine of local civic engagement would replace the neighborhood school? What privatized national charter-school management organizations would replace the overburdened, but at least politically accountable, local school leadership? What happens if the charter movement is no longer the cause du jour for reform-minded philanthropists and private funding no longer supplements public dollars?
None of this is to say that proven charter schools should be shut down. But it would be foolish to ignore that the rampant growth of charter schools might reshape our city, particularly if it occurs at the expense of neighborhood public schools. Such concerns would carry less weight if the school-choice movement included a growing number of excellent neighborhood public schools — schools that embrace and take seriously important lessons from the charter movement — as a viable option for Washington parents. The existence of such a choice, after all, would represent the fulfillment of the charter-school movement’s admirable initial promise.
The writer is a District resident.