It’s not enough that here in the District of Columbia we had the opportunity a couple of weeks ago to hear highly inaccurate statements about charter schools from Elizabeth Davis, the president of the Washington Teachers’ Union. Our movement was hit again just last Sunday evening when comedian John Oliver spent over 18 minutes tearing apart these innovative public institutions.
I will leave it up to people like my friend Nelson Smith, senior advisor to the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, and others such as the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, to point out that the statistics used by Mr. Oliver regarding student academic achievement are outdated and wrong. His commentary struck a pretty significant chord so I will concentrate on a personal reaction to the piece.
Many will state that the problems he highlights are the exception rather than the rule. But they are much more than a variance. The stories he discussed are by miles directly opposite from my 20 years of experience with the numerous heroes that on a daily basis have unselfishly shared their time, money, and talent to improve the education of children with whom they have no connection. They go to work simply because of their passionate and stubborn understanding that every student can learn. A great number of the kids that they help, if it was not for their efforts, would most likely end up in jail or worse because that has been the pattern for those living at the lowest rung of the economic ladder.
To say that these pupils were not well served before the charter movement came about does not depict in any sense the recent history of the total collapse of public education in the nation’s capital. We had a system that did not provide textbooks, could not say for certain how many employees worked for it, had buildings in which walls were crumbling by the hour, and characterized by hallways crowded with gangs, weapons, and drugs. It was often safer for parents to keep their kids home than send them to school.
Much has greatly improved in the last two decades because of the competition for students that charters have provided. But there is much more that has to be done. Let me state this as plainly as I can. Charters now consistently outperform DCPS academically while simultaneously continuing to struggle to obtain permanent facilities, and while being funded at a level $100 million a year less than the traditional schools. Even if a charter obtains a shuttered DCPS facility it must practically beg a financial entity to lend it money based upon its per pupil revenue to fix the structure. You see, these buildings are turned over to charters missing even the copper pipes used to carry running water. For this opportunity charters get the privilege of paying rent.
Yet, for sending students to college who in the past would be dead, we get comments such as those by Ms. Davis that are not challenged by one public official in our city. Not one. It is enough to drive those working in charters to go home and figure out something else to do.
But they won’t because that simply would not be right. They will continue to get up at 4 a.m. and not leave the office until the sun goes down seven days a week because that is what they are about. Anything less would not be serving our children.