D.C. charter schools are as privately managed as DCPS

Another day, another accusation by education reporters in the nation’s capital that D.C. charter schools are privately managed. The line is used again and again by free-lancer Rachel Cohen, the Washington Post’s Perry Stein, and WAMU’s Jenny Abamu. Perhaps these individuals believe that if they keep repeating it over and over again it will become the truth. Let’s take a closer look at what is really going on.

Each charter school is a nonprofit corporation that is governed by a volunteer board of directors. This board is comprised of two parents of current students at the school plus other professionals. The directors, who are elected by the other board members, are often lawyers, bankers, education specialists, and experts in organizational management. In other words they possess skills that can benefit and support the head of the school. Half of the trustees must live in the District of Columbia. So you can see that charters are run by the community: by people who live and work near the families that decide to send their children to a particular school.

When it comes to DCPS however, there are no boards of directors. The principal reports to the Chancellor. Therefore, while parents at a charter can appeal to its board if they have a concern at a school, there is no equivalent in the traditional system. There is an elected State Board of Education, but this body is a policy-making group that does not have responsibilities over individual facilities.

Charter schools ultimately report to the DC Public Charter School Board. Its volunteer members are nominated by the Mayor and confirmed by the council. As has been pointed out many times recently, the PCSB is a governmental entity that must comply with open meeting and FOIA laws.

DCPS is run by the Chancellor who is appointed by the Mayor and confirmed by the DC Council. So the two sectors almost mirror each other in the manner in which elected representatives have influence over their schools. One important difference, however, is that the Mayor and Council have a limited role in deciding the rules under which charters operate. which is restricted to the areas of the health and safety of students, and funding. In addition, the PCSB has much less control over the schools it oversees compared to the Chancellor, although some of my charter friends would argue that this contrast has greatly narrowed over the years.

But while there are similarities between the reporting relationship of charters and DCPS, the two could not be more different when it comes to their inherent natures. DCPS is composed of neighborhood schools, while charters are schools of choice. This structural variance is central to the education of our kids, especially in the inner city.

Traditional schools are bureaucratic entities in which the employees are responsible to the hierarchy. The organizational chart creates its own incentives for the way people behave. The result, sadly, is staff that can become more focused on pleasing the person above them in authority rather than concentrating on the needs of the young person in front of them on a daily basis.

Charters operate in an educational marketplace. The number of students going to these schools determine its revenue since money follows the child. School choice becomes a powerful force in directing adults to try and satisfy the pedagogical needs of their pupils.

While DCPS also receives its funding based on the number of students that attend a school, there is not nearly as close a connection as with charters since neighborhood schools often have a captive audience of attendees.

It is the essence of school choice that has driven our local charters to be able to close the academic achievement gap. Many of them located in Wards 7 and 8 score as high as students attending classrooms in Ward 3. Instead of the attacks that have been leveled at charter schools lately, we need to honor their success. They receive a lower level of per pupil funding than the regular schools, about two thousand dollars less per child each year, and they face an intractable facility shortage that no one has been able to solve.

For what charter schools have been able to accomplish under these circumstances they should and must be celebrated. Every year, month, day, hour, minute, and second.

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