D.C. charters start new school year in most perilous environment in decades

Yesterday many D.C. charter schools began the new term along with the traditional schools.  This year marks the most difficult environment for these alternative public schools since they were first created more than 20 years ago.  Allow me to provide a snapshot of what I am seeing.

Let’s start with the release of the PARCC standardized test scores last week.  For the first time since public schools began mandated testing under No Child Left Behind, DCPS actually beat charters in academic achievement.  Readers may assume that this is due to the fact that more affluent families are moving to the District, but the regular schools bested charters in the categories of English Language Learners, economically disadvantaged, and for those students with disabilities in the subject of English Language Arts and for most of these subgroups in math.  Serving these groups of pupils was the justification for creating charter schools in the first place.

Next we had the first school vote to become part of labor union in the case of Cesar Chavez Public Charter School Prep Campus.  Some have argued that with a name like Cesar Chavez it was only inevitable that this would transpire, but how in the world a charter brings innovation and spontaneity to operations negotiated across a boardroom table beats me.   This took place only after Paul Public PCS came close to adopting the same union in the aftermath of the executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board writing that the introduction of unions in D.C. charters would increase the diversity of the portfolio of schools it regulates.

By the way,  the union that Chavez joined, the American Federation of Teachers, is headed by an individual who recently equated school choice with Jim Crow laws.  The NAACP has also joined the fray calling for an end to the expansion of charters across the country. Back in the nation’s capital we have a lawsuit against the city brought by Eagle Academy PCS, Washington Latin PCS, and the D.C. Associated of Chartered Public Schools engineered by FOCUS that charges that for years DCPS has received around $100 million in revenue illegally outside of the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula.  No solution to this controversy is in site.

Charters are also being criticized by the very organizations that have strongly backed their creation.  Jeannie Allen, founder and chief executive officer of the Center for Education Reform, has accused the movement of isomorphism, which she defines as the “constraining process that forces one unit in a population to resemble the others who face similar environmental conditions.”  She asserts that charters more and more are resembling the very schools they were meant to compete against for students.  One symptom of this isomorphism to which she points is the increasingly bureaucratic nature of our own DC Public Charter School Board, a body often highlighted as doing the best job at overseeing charters in the country.

But the board has had a tough time of it lately.  It had great difficulty deciding whether the Latin American Youth Center Career Academy should be shuttered and that uncertainty led to the school losing its leased space.  It demonstrated agonizing ambiguity over the expansion plans of DC Prep, a decision which should have been as uncontroversial as the staff originally described it to the charter.

But with all of this circulating in the air above our students heads there are still some real positives out there.  For example, D.C. charters have never instructed more children. During the 2016 to 2017 term over 41,000 students attended schools in this sector, equating to 46 percent of all public school students.  This year could see us approach equity with those enrolled in DCPS.  In addition, the facility allotment was recently increased by Mayor Bowser and these dollars, together with the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula revenue, represent the highest level of support charters have ever experienced.  Finally, despite the earlier comments about standardized test scores, some schools such as DC Prep and KIPP DC are demonstrating that the academic achievement gap can be closed.  Now its time for the rest of the group to follow their fine example.


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