Disappointing 20 years of public school reform in Washington, D.C.

I’ve been receiving the email messages and viewing the blog posts about how we are all supposed to be celebrating the fact that 20 years ago the first charter school opened its doors in the District of Columbia.  Please excuse me if I skip the party.

Don’t get me wrong.  Much has significantly improved since 1996.  At that time the primary reason parents sought these experimental educational institutions was that they were safe.  This says all you really need to know about the state of DCPS.  Thanks to our local movement many children have attended college who never would have gone; in fact the word university never would have passed through the lips of their parents.  It is also not an overstatement to say that for numerous young people charters have meant the difference between life and death on the streets of our city.

But I’m far from satisfied at the progress.  I started my involvement with charters near the end of 1999 when I was a volunteer tutor at the Cesar Chavez Public Charter High School for Public Policy.  There I was introduced to ninth and tenth graders who could not read, write, or complete basic mathematical problems.  With the release of the PARCC standardized test results showing that our students have a proficiency rate in English and math at 25 percent, it appears that if I showed up at a public school today to work with a high school student my observations would not be much different.  The academic achievement gap between rich and poor and black and white is not shrinking; it is actually moving in the opposite direction.

Moreover, after a quarter of a century at this the funding inequities between charters and the regular schools persist.  We still haven’t figured out how to provide a permanent facility for all charters that need one.  There is a desperate shortage of high quality seats.  Parents trying to get their children into many Performance Management Framework Tier 1 schools face a waiting list of over a thousand scholars.  For the third year in a row charters make up 44 percent of all kids attending public schools in the nations capital.

Yes, much has improved over the last two decades.  But if we really want to change our society to one in which each and every young person receives the education they deserve, I’m afraid we have stalled.



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