D.C. charters are losing the public relations battle

Of course, I’m not stating anything we don’t already know. The confluence of news reports about excessive administrative salaries, students scrambling to find new schools in the face of multiple charter revocations by the DC Public Charter School Board and other voluntary closures, and the charge of a lack of transparency have combined to place these institutions serving almost half of all public school students in a negative light. As I’ve written recently, the current atmosphere is feeding those who want to see charters eradicated from the face of the earth and who faithfully support our country’s declining labor unions.

However depressing the situation seems at the moment, there is a way out. After having lengthy conversations with three prominent members of our local charter school movement yesterday I believe the way forward is clear.

First, we need to support open meetings of our local charter school boards. This is a common sense approach which treats the families of our students with dignity and respect. The great majority of the business that takes place before these boards is mundane in nature, and having visitors offers the opportunity to showcase the great work being done at our schools.

Next, we need to oppose the call for individual schools to have to respond to Freedom of Information Act requests. Charters have exceedingly small administrative staffs and, as Rick Cruz, the chair of the PCSB, pointed out in my recent conversation with him, they need to focus on things like “academics, safety, finances, facilities, personnel, and meeting their specific goals.” In addition, FOIA actually applies to federal government entities, which charter schools are not.  D.C. has its own Freedom of Information Act law which does not cover charter school boards.  However, the PCSB is required to respond to those seeking information under FOIA and it has a treasure trove of information that it gathers from the schools it oversees.

Moreover, as I also wrote about the other day, decisions made at the school level need to looked at under a microscope as if they will be the next trending topic on Twitter. This is something that is an inherent part of the job of receiving and spending public funds.

Then we should celebrate all of the accomplishments of this exciting sector. We should proudly talk about how we are closing the academic achievement gap in public education for the first time in our nation’s history. We should remind citizens of the absolute train-wreck that DCPS was before charters starting offering an alternative way to deliver education. We must point to the improvements in the traditional schools that would never have occurred without our presence. We should provide a list of students that without our lifeline would have ended up in jail or dead. Finally, we should exclaim that we are doing all of this with our hands tied behind our backs due to the struggle to secure permanent facilities and the fact that we receive about $100 million less in funding each year than the regular schools.

Finally, we need to talk about the unique charter bargain around quality. We need to remind our community that DCPS has never, and will not ever, close a school due to academic results. We believe with every cell in our bodies in the equation of autonomy with accountability. After all isn’t autonomy with accountability what life is all about? Let’s use the experience of charter schools to teach this crucial lesson to our children.

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