Last week, DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson reacted strongly against an article that appeared in Education Watchdog by Moriah Costa entitled, “Who get the Credit for Rise in D.C. Graduation Rates?” The piece discusses the six point increase in the four year high school graduation rate that the traditional school experienced in 2015 compared to the previous year, and the reporter asks my friend Kara Kerwin, president of the Center for Education Reform, for the reason for the jump. She replied that the cause is school choice. Here’s the full quotation:
“You can’t look at graduation rates in a vacuum, especially in D.C., where you’ve got a three-sector approach that’s helping lift student outcomes,” she said. “Nearly half of D.C. students are enrolled in public charter schools, which for years have outperformed traditional district schools, creating a ripple effect that puts pressure on all schools to do better.”
Now, I don’t believe there is a greater proponent of an educational marketplace than me. However, I have to agree with Ms. Henderson that the remark goes a bit too far.
School choice, specifically the rise of charters, was the fountainhead of public school reform in Washington, D.C. Before charters came into existence here the regular schools were a place you wouldn’t want your kids to go. At many sites crime, drugs, and gang activity were often more plentiful than books. The physical spaces were uninhabitable. There was extremely little actual teaching going on.
As families rushed to find an alternative to DCPS the population of students in charters grew dramatically. At about the time that the traditional schools lost 25 percent of its enrollment Mayor Fenty was elected, the D.C. Council granted him control of the regular school system, and Michelle Rhee was brought in as the first Chancellor.
After Mayor Gray was elected Ms. Rhee stepped down and Ms. Henderson took over. You cannot underestimate how fortunate we are that she is in this position. Just being in the same room with her is inspirational. She has a laser-like focus on improving every aspect of her schools. She is the first to say that progress is not coming fast enough, but by working day and night I am confident that she will reach the goals of her strategic plan, one of which is to achieve a four year graduation rate of 75 percent.
Did charters create the public policy environment that has resulted in drastically needed positive change in DCPS? Of course they did. But did charters fix what was broken. I’m afraid they did not.
The DCPS four year graduation rate is at 64 percent, and Ms. Henderson has two more years to go.