The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The secret sauce of D.C. charter schools

The Two Rivers Public Charter School sitting at corner of Florida Avenue and 4th Street NE. (Mark Gail/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Richard Whitmire is a senior fellow at the Kauffman Foundation and the author of “The Founders: Inside the revolution to invent (and re-invent) America’s best charter schools.”

Not long ago, I traveled to Los Angeles to report on the charter school fights there. Nasty business. Then I visited Boston to report on its battle over lifting the lid on charters. More nasty business.

And then I returned to the District, where exactly nobody is fighting over charters. How can that be?

Isn’t this the city where everyone fights about pretty much everything every day of the year? And yet, while the rest of the country seems to be tossing pitchforks over charters, here in the District, there’s peace in the land.

Not only is there peace, but at times charter schools and District schools intermingle, cooperating or collaborating on issues such as common enrollment and discipline.

Is there a secret sauce here that other cities could use to heal battle wounds?

After talking with a wide range of D.C. educators, I came up with some answers.

1. Who’s your daddy?

The daddy in the District is the author of D.C.’s charter law: Congress, which rode to the rescue when schools were flat-out awful and parents desperately needed alternatives. The law was written with students in mind — in most cases, education policy gets passed with adults’ interests in mind. Charters were allowed enough flexibility to succeed and enough accountability to weed out the worst schools. Baked to perfection.

2. Who says money can’t buy happiness?

Educators in other states are astonished when they learn how much the District spends per student and how much teachers get paid. The District has the highest first-year teacher salary in the country. The very best can be making a six-figure salary within seven years.

As for per-pupil spending, the exact figure is hard to come by, but it ranks at the top of the nation: Including facility spending, an estimate is slightly more than $18,000 for charter students and more than $22,000 for traditional D.C. Public Schools students.

3. Political leaders morphing into education activists.

Okay, so no one was all that surprised when then-Mayor Adrian Fenty (D) laid down the gauntlet as an education revolutionary, first by winning mayoral control of schools, and then by bringing in firebrand chancellor Michelle Rhee.

But then-Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), who beat Fenty partly based on the perception that he was going to sweep the schools clean of those fierce Rhee reforms, changed course once he won. The Rhee reforms didn't look so bad, and Rhee's deputy, Kaya Henderson, seemed like the perfect chancellor. Against all odds, the Rhee reforms won a continuance. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has kept the thread alive.

4. Benevolent dictators are benevolent.

Scott Pearson isn't really a dictator, although he may seem that way to struggling charter school operators begging for just another year to turn things around. Pearson runs D.C.'s Public Charter School Board, regarded as among the leading authorizers in the country.

Being the best means dispensing tough love: The board closed 20 charter schools over the past five years, including 15 for low academic performance.

That's just a taste of how Pearson polices the charter sector: His "mystery shopper" campaign, in which investigators pose as prospective parents, helps ensure that charters don't exclude certain children. The board's campaign to change expulsion and suspension rates produced dramatic decreases in both.

Another result of his fairness campaign: Compared with DCPS schools, the charters here serve a higher percentage of poor kids, higher percentage of African American students and nearly as many special-education students.

5. A weak union getting weaker.

In Los Angeles and Massachusetts, the anti-charter campaigns are being led by strong, charismatic union leaders. In L.A., the union increased dues by a third to fight charters.

In the District, the Washington Teachers' Union (WTU) struggles to get its members to vote in union elections. And Rhee exercised unique powers granted to a D.C. chancellor to impose a teacher evaluation system based partly on student outcomes and to lay off teachers based on a lack of merit rather than a lack of seniority.

6. Can’t fight over shared facilities if you’re not sharing.

In New York and L.A., much of the tension bubbles up over laws mandating that school districts offer “co-located” space in underused school buildings. In the District, co-location is not part of the law.

7. Safety in numbers.

With nearly half of D.C. students in charters, challenging the charters gets tough. Who would tell Ward 8 parents they couldn't send their kids to Achievement Prep or the Rocketship charter?

That’s probably what keeps the powerful American Federation of Teachers out of D.C. school politics. Not only does AFT President Randi Weingarten have a weak partner in the WTU, but a white union president trying to stir up a cap-the-charters movement here radiates the wrong racial optics.

8. Relative racial peace.

Nationally, the NAACP and Black Lives Matter have embraced the union position on charters: Cap them. But nary a peep locally. Here, thankfully, there have been no police-shooting tragedies. Also, here, a fair number of African American leaders send their children to charters.

9. Nothing perpetuates success like success.

D.C. charters are really good. Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that charters in the District add an average of about 70 days of learning in reading compared with traditional school students and 100 days in math.

10. D.C. leaders put children first.

Say what you will about Rhee, but there was never a question about who got protected first, the bureaucracy or the students. Same for Henderson, and ditto for Mayors Fenty, Gray and Bowser.

Read more about this issue:

The Post’s View: A change that could make Virginia more welcoming to charters

The Post’s View: A partnership between traditional and charter schools in D.C.

Scott Pearson and John McCoy: Getting the balance right

The Post’s View: D.C.’s charter schools get a gold star