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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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Marc, the comparison of the relative sizes of the charter budgets to DCPS, on the basis of children enrolled, needs to be made carefully. DCPS has the high (too high) cost of special ed, the burden of excess square footage-per-pupil to maintain, and the costs of an older workforce with higher seniority on the wage scale. That's not to say DCPS has lots of excess cost - it does - but on the other side the charter system is free of costs that the older system is burdened with. Let's see the Post analyze the true direct costs of educating students in each system. The public needs to have a fuller picture of the economics of each system - before we jump to conclusions such as "the charters are needed public institutions", which is an unfounded statement unless you provide facts to back it up.

Posted by: Paul | February 25, 2008 9:04 AM

Paul, the parents of 22,000 students have already decided that "the charters are needed public institutions". How many more facts do you need?

I'm a parent of young child who has been visiting schools and studying this issue with great interest. We are considering three schools for her: one charter and two traditional public. I'm grateful to have that third option and I wish that the 'old guard' educational establishment would drop their outright hostile stance towards charters and work together with them to give our kids the best, widest range of opportunities available. We all know the obstacles, but for once we should put our kids first, not just job security.

Posted by: Chris | February 25, 2008 9:23 AM

Charter Schools are the worst. They treat the students like slaves. The charter school administrator, such as Mr.Nida are in bed with the charter school adminsistrators. I have witnessed multiple act of abuse against many children. I know parents that withdrew their children after the 1st week at a charter. They don't want the parent to question their policies. Their disciplinary system is slave like. I know. My son has attended 2.
DON'T DO IT!!!!!!

Posted by: KJii | February 25, 2008 10:03 AM

One reason people are hostile to charter schools is because they are all-too-often poorly organized schools where the administrators are over their heads and scrambling to get people paid and buy supplies. They are entrepreneurial start ups and all of us who worked for one before know they are chaotic.

Friends of ours signed their kid up for the first year of a charter school and gave me handouts on it. The handout and website listed a friend of mine (!!!) as being in charge of an arts program. I called him to congratulate him. He was stunned. This wasn't true. Sure, the people had talked to him and sure he agreed to come speak to the students... AS A GUEST IN WHAT HE THOUGHT WAS CAREER DAY! The people fraudulently listed him in their website. He won't talk about it, but his name was gone the next time I checked. Turns out that the school has no instructor in that kind of art at all.

That's the issue. Do you want to entrust your child's education to an entrepreneurial school that's barely got it together? A school that doesn't have a gym, doesn't have a piano for music class, doesn't have enough books to go around? A school where they need to buy a piano, buy a loudspeaker system, buy 24 computers, buy educational stations, etc?

I have another friend who has their child in a DC charter school and is miserable. The good teacher is leaving for a suburban school and no one knows who the school is going to get for next year. She is afraid they'll hire whoever was rejected by DC Public Schools.

If anyone thinks that Charters are different from public schools, better than public schools, or are some kind of panacea? Go visit them. I was shocked because the two we saw were clean, painted, and empty of class materials.

Posted by: Dcer | February 25, 2008 10:09 AM


Depends on the school. You might just as well argue that there are no decent private schools out there.

There's a big difference between something like Two Rivers and a converted storefront somewhere...

Posted by: ibc | February 25, 2008 10:18 AM

I'm amazed by the broad-brush criticisms of charters here. Yeah, there are terrible charters, just as there are terrible public schools and even private schools. Do your homework, investigate a school's track record, talk to teachers and parents.

FWIW, my kid goes to a public charter school, and while it's not perfect, it's miles better than our neighborhood school. Our kid is happy, engaged, and learning.

Absolutely, close the bad charters -- that's one of the benefits of the charter system, after all -- but don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. Charters are a necessary option given the state of the current system. Plus, I think having charters around promotes innovation -- some of the new ideas coming out of Rhee's office (designating certain schools as "arts magnets" "gifted magnets" or introducing "differentiated instruction" in DCPS schools strike me as taking a page from the charter play book. I think it's a good thing. Same old same old has not worked.

Posted by: ccindc | February 25, 2008 10:29 AM

I do believe that the charter schools serve a purpose of options for the parents because our public school sysytem is so chaotic. However, I question the charter school's mission. Based on experience, it appears the mission is to punish the child into learning. One school has a so called character education program. This is a disguise of their, "zero tolerance" the teacher is always right disciplinary system. The speak to the children in an abusive and punitive manner. Now I know why our children are so ill mannered. A friend of mine who works with special students told me that the charter school students are so angry. The character education coordinator stated emphatically that the charter schools mission was to "make AYP(adequate yearly progress)that is the bottom line, nothing else matters." This issue goes deeper than money and student enrollment. Parents find a school that will teach your child not just test your child.

Posted by: Kevin | February 25, 2008 10:29 AM

"Based on experience, it appears the mission is to punish the child into learning"

Oh, fer crying out loud. You do understand the difference between an anecdote and data, right?

"The problem with animals is that a bird pooped on my shoulder once."

Posted by: ibc | February 25, 2008 12:04 PM

There's a big difference between something like Two Rivers and a converted storefront somewhere...

EXACTLY my point IBC. You and I are in agreement. The charter schools are advertised as a panacea, but most are not. There is a big difference between Two Rivers and the majority of charter schools. That's exactly what I was trying to say.

When parents go visit these charter schools, regardless of their websites, they see more of the truth even if they don't see how their kids are in the classroom. In the public schools we DID talk to a few parents who took their kids out of charter schools mid-year and obviously, the parents who abandon their failing charter school are quite critical of the Charter system that advertised free excellence.

I'm glad you found the right school for your kid IBC. I'm still looking for my child. But why do you recognize that the storefront charter schools have issues without acknowledging that entrepreneurial education is fraught with such stories?

Posted by: DCer | February 25, 2008 2:05 PM

Mr. Fisher,
I hope you will try and learn more about the DC voucher program, especially the perspectives of parents like me that know the scholarships are a true blessing for us. Why should the fate of my children and their educations suffer because the local school is unsafe and can't meet their educational needs? With the vouchers my children are now thriving in school, their behavior has improved, and they are learning! You would encourage others to take this away from us? This is not about politcs, DC children need more school choices. And parents like me need more choices. Don't you agree?

Posted by: Scholarship Parent | February 25, 2008 3:20 PM

Charters are not necessarily better than public schools -- as someone else pointed out, it depends on the school -- but some charter schools are terrific and actually keep families in the city.

My child attends Washington Latin which, in its first year, was deemed one of the top ten DC public schools (and the top performing charter school) by virtue of its high test scores. The school went through some difficult times this fall when the founding head of school was forced to resign, but the school and the students have emerged even stronger from the rough patch. The facilities this year are completely inadequate, but the students, teachers, and administrators push forward with a combination of creativity and perserverence. In fact, the fledgling girls basketball team, which doesn't even have a home court for practice, recently routed one of the top private school teams. Just amazing!

The one thing this school needs to reach its potential is space, and it is pathetic that DCPS will not make excess space available, as required by law. This forces the school to go into the commercial market for space, and we all know how expensive that can be.

Washington Latin is one of the charter schools that actually keeps families in the District. Many of the current families would move out of the city if they did not have the opportunity to attend such an academically rigorous school.

Posted by: DC Parent | February 25, 2008 8:32 PM

One of the reasons Marc is so against having meters in cabs is that Congress decreed it.

Through an act of Congress by Democratic senator Landrieu of Louisiana, charter schools must get first right of refusal to so-called surplus property in the District. This property sold to charter schools can then easily be sold off either in part or in its entirety.

The DC Public Charter School Board is not elected by the citizens of the District of Columbia.

Charter schools are private nonprofit corporations with a privately appointed board of trustees.

Charter school buildings are considered to be owned by the nonprofit corporations, not the citizens of the District of Columbia.

"But the charters are indeed public institutions," says Marc.

It is to laugh.

Step Two of the privatization of a public school system.

Posted by: Vic | February 25, 2008 9:34 PM

Marc's blog entry is about DC government hoarding the underutilized DCPS buildings and he is 100% right on all counts. Our city's school buildings should be used to educate children.

Most public charters have found their own spaces, but as they expand or increase in number, they deserve a chance to bid on the buildings that DCPS cannot fill. The city has been throwing up roadblocks and trying to squat in these under-used buildings.

The City Council cannot ignore their consituents' professed demand for more independent public schools.

Posted by: Pro-charter DC parent | February 27, 2008 9:55 AM

Our child is in a DC charter and we are thrilled to be there. They have a fantastic staff who operate as a cohesive team. Every staffmember has the student's well-being in mind, and they treat everyone with utter respect and a top-notch customer service orientation. They routinely go above and beyond and bring a creativity that is refreshing. Having this school as an option has made the difference to our families' ability to stay in DC versus moving to MD or VA for better schools. It would be unfair to say DCPS schools are all good or all bad based on anecdotes. It is just as unfair to make sweeping generalizations about charters. All children in DC deserve a top notch education that is a good fit. They also deserve choice if their neighborhood school does not offer that.

Posted by: DC Charter Parent | February 27, 2008 4:01 PM

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