The FOCUS DC Charter School Conference

As I wrote about a few days ago, last week was the first annual DC Charter School Conference sponsored by Friends of Choice in Urban Schools.  Every since I attended the event last Thursday I have not been able to stop thinking about it.

I’ve already let you in on some of the action.  There were over 400 enthusiastic participants at this meeting made up of teachers, school administrators, and other public education stakeholders.  But how could they be anything other than excited when you start with a passionate Keynote Address by Dr. Howard Fuller, followed by perfectly choreographed dance recitals performed by pairs of students of Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School.

Once the general session was over it was time to attend the breakout sessions.  There were actually 38 of these that attendees could choose among and they were grouped into 11 various categories such as development, governance, data, communications, and of course, facilities.  Here is my next takeaway from the experience: everything was exceptionally well organized.  You never would have known that this was the first time something like this had been attempted.  From the refreshments in the morning to the audiovisual effects in the conference rooms, and the happy hour at the end of the meetings, it appeared that this was simply another iteration of a long-established tradition in our nation’s capital.

I had the great pleasure of sitting in on the first advocacy session.  This was a panel discussion featuring my hero Jack McCarthy, president, CEO, and founder of AppleTree Early Learning Public Charter School; Dr. Ramona Edelin, executive director of the DC Association of Public Chartered Schools; and Stephen Marcus, an attorney with the Marcus Firm, PLLC and the lead council for the FOCUS-led charter school funding inequity lawsuit against the city.  The facilitator for the conversation was Jeanne Allen, the Center for Education Reform’s CEO.  Each member spoke in turn giving a brief history of our local charter school movement.  A common theme quickly emerged from their comments.  With the exception of Mr. Marcus, they argued that Washington D.C.’s charter schools have lost the autonomy that was guaranteed to them through the School Reform Act of 2005 as it was passed by Congress.  Mr. McCarthy stated that he knew that the situation had really changed when he had to hire his first compliance officer, a position he stated that almost all charters now possess.  The participants bemoaned the fact that charter schools were established to be the fountainheads of innovation in public education but due to the ranking of schools through almost the sole reliance on high stakes tests and the amount of information required to be submitted to the DC Public Charter School Board, they have begun to resemble the schools to which they were meant as an alternative.  This point was best expressed in a recent Education Week article by Ms. Allen:

“The operational freedom initially afforded to charters through law, in exchange for performance-based accountability, caught a regulatory fervor that its own advocates invited. Charters are slowly morphing into bureaucratic, risk-averse organizations fixated on process over experimentation. Such organizational behavior is called isomorphism, allowing once-innovative organizations to resemble those they disrupted. The root cause has been a regulatory push of laws at both the state and federal levels. These have empowered state agencies to micromanage everything from the approval to the authorization of charters. Some call it accountability. Others know it better as bureaucracy.”

Mr. Marcus disagreed with this assessment, stating that charters are afforded a bargain which he expressed as freedom to govern themselves in exchange for accountability of results.  He explained that there is a natural tension between autonomy and oversight, and he revealed that he often has to challenge the PCSB on its overreach of its authority.

This debate will not end anytime soon.  Anytime public dollars are involved in funding our schools there will be demands for a return on the investment.  The critical problem is that the groundbreaking improvements that come through the workings of the free market are diminished when regulatory chains are applied.

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