Schools Monday: A Body Check To The Charters
Washington's still-burgeoning charter schools movement is both an embarrassment and a role model for the city's regular public schools. As Chancellor Michelle Rhee moves from the first, flashy chapter in her whirlwind reform drive--fixing decrepit buildings and shutting down excess schools--to the even tougher assault on chronic low achievement and low expectations, the city's charter system stands as a constant reminder that parents are voting with their feet.
There are now 22,000 kids in D.C. charter schools and 50,000 in the regular public schools. At the rate of growth the charters have seen in recent years, the majority of D.C. students will be in charters by 2014. Perhaps the exodus from the public system won't continue at quite the same pace, but the message being sent through the first seven years of the charter era is clear: Parents put a huge value on schools perceived as safe and locally-run, even if the performance measures of those schools aren't necessarily any better than those of their neighborhood school.
But the city's political establishment continues to fight the charters, or at least relegate them to secondary status. Throughout the debate over Rhee's drive to shut down 23 D.C. schools because they are hugely underenrolled, there has been little discussion about who will gain control of those buildings. Mayor Adrian Fenty, whose administration controls the fate of the shuttered schools, says they will stay in the city's inventory and be used to house social services and other D.C. agencies that are either hungry for space or hope to move from expensive downtown office rentals to much cheaper ex-schools out in the neighborhoods. But the law requires that school facilities no longer used by the public system be made available to charter schools, which struggle to find appropriate space in a city where real estate values continue to stay strong, even amid the nationwide decline.
And now the D.C. Council--which has assumed oversight of the school system now that the school board has been put out of business--has put out a report arguing that it's time to slam the brakes on growth of the charter schools. The report calls on the council to "work with the U.S. Congress to address the chartering of new schools," and suggests that the Public Charter Schools Board, an independent body that now governs many of the charters, be reconstituted "as a District of Columbia entity." The report goes further and questions the very existence of the charters: "School choice may be worthy of review and may require revision."
But much as politicians and public school managers may squirm about the daily rebuke to the public system that the growth of charters represents, there is no stuffing this genie back in the bottle. The quality of charter schools varies to a frightening degree, ranging from excellent and adventuresome to downright criminal, with a whole lot of mediocrity in the middle. But with rare exceptions, parents see charters as a place where their kids will be safe, where committed teachers work, and where children will not drift through as anonymous bothers to staffers who are counting the days to retirement.
Advocates for the charter system, while often far too suspicious of efforts to ensure some base level of competence at charters, have the advantage of having the public on their side. As Robert Cane, head of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, one of the main pro-charter groups, put it in a recent memo, "in spite of the virulent anti-charter rhetoric of a handful of upper-middle class Ward 6 residents, it is not at all apparent that the general public is worried about the burgeoning charter school movement. Not only does charter school enrollment continue to grow at an average of 15% a year, but a recent public opinion poll by D.C.'s Glover Park Group shows that a much greater percentage of D.C. residents favor charter schools (49%) than oppose them (19%), with 32% unsure. When those polled were provided with a simple definition of "charter school," the approval percentage jumped to 64% while the unsure percentage plummeted."
The charters remain relatively underfunded. The charter budget is about 30 percent of the regular system's ($320 million vs. $1.05 billion), but the tally of students in the charter system is 44 percent of the regular public school enrollment (22,000 vs. 50,000). (The public system's retort to that is that the great majority of the kids who have been assigned to special education programs, which are vastly more expensive, are in the regular public schools, which is true, but given the unusually strong propensity of the D.C. system to slap kids with the special needs label, that situation needn't necessarily be the case.)
If the District's politicians are concerned about abuses of public money, they should look toward finding a way out of the congressionally-imposed school vouchers program, which is much smaller than the charter system, contains no mechanism for oversight, subsidizes religious institutions with taxpayer dollars, and provides no meaningful competition that might spur the regular system to improve itself.
But the charters are indeed public institutions, even if they are not nearly as transparent as regular public schools. The same politicians who are so far backing Rhee and Fenty in their reform efforts should focus on improving the charters and giving them the facilities they need, not on trying to limit or close the one piece of Washington's school system that parents are embracing.
By Marc Fisher |
February 25, 2008; 7:10 AM ET
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