Yesterday, American University Radio WAMU and National Public Radio ran a story by Martin Austermuhle entitled “After 20 Years, Are Charters and DCPS Learning To Get Along?” about the first two decades of charter schools operating in Washington, D.C. In the piece, in which I’m quoted, the Deputy Mayor for Education Jennie Niles comes to this conclusion:
“We have a very unique situation here in D.C., with 55 percent of our students attending DCPS, 45 percent attending public charter schools. And competition has gotten us this far, but going forward what’s going to get us [further] is the collaboration.”
She is absolutely right. I returned a few weeks ago from the Amplify School Choice conference in Denver hosted by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity totally convinced that here in the nation’s capital we desperately need our version of this city’s District-Charter Collaboration Compact. But before we link hands and commit to all getting along for the benefit of the children, we need to consider the details of what would be contained in such a contract.
First and foremost, charters would have to be guaranteed access to permanent facilities. Ms. Niles formed her DC Cross-Sector Collaboration Task Force, but she started with the pronouncement that a discussion of buildings was off the table. Well, physical space is only the biggest challenge a charter faces, and securing it is a tremendous distraction to the school’s focus on academics. Having charter leaders expend all of their energy on this issue while helplessly watching the traditional schools spend hundreds of millions of dollars renovating their own classrooms only adds painful insult to injury.
Next, there has to be a solution to the funding inequity between the two sectors. Whether the city wants to provide the same services to charters that it provides for free to DCPS like building maintenance, lawyers, and information technology, or simply augment the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula to account for these expenses as recommended in the Adequacy Study is up to the Mayor. But something desperately needs to be done so that the FOCUS-engineered lawsuit over this matter can be brought to a rightful conclusion.
Once these major issues are resolved then I honestly believe the sky is the limit for charter and DCPS cooperation. There can be sharing of real estate, programs, professional development, feeder patterns, and yes, even planning around where new charters should or should not be located. But before we can get to this point, and just like when we were in school, we have to take care of the fundamentals first.