5 year D.C. charter school movement secret revealed

Former DC Public Charter School Board executive director Scott Pearson penned an article in the online journal Education Next entitled “5 Things We Learned in D.C. About How to Advance Charter Schools.” In the piece Mr. Pearson answers a question that has haunted the movement since 2015. That spring he wrote a commentary co-authored with Skip McCoy, the DC PCSB chair at the time, that made the argument that the balance between the number of children attending charters compared to DCPS “is about right.”

The editorial sent a shockwave through the local charter school movement. Leaders could not understand why such an argument would be made, especially at this moment in history, by the two people who were supposed to be the city’s strongest charter school advocates. As charters were growing at a record pace school choice supporters were looking forward to the day when the majority of students in the nation’s capital would be enrolled in these alternative schools. The thought was that the shift in the demographics between the two sectors would bring more resources to charters in the areas of funding and facilities, as well as provide a quality education to thousands of pupils who had been left behind for decades by the regular schools.

Now, a couple of months after stepping down from his position at the charter board, Mr. Pearson offers his rationale for the action he took and I warn you that it is not pretty. Under a section labeled “Remove the Existential Angst” he writes:

“In 2012 D.C. charters served 41% of pupils, up from 25% ten years earlier. With share growth of two to three percentage points each year it was simple to forecast that a generation hence DCPS would be reduced to a tiny remnant—or eliminated entirely. For some national charter school theorists, this was the goal, an extreme position in an active national debate about the ‘end state’ of charter schools.

In D.C., though, this possibility raised the political temperature tremendously.

It turned out most people in D.C. supported both charters and DCPS. Many families had children in both sectors. Many city elders were proud DCPS alumni. And, significantly, DCPS, under Michelle Rhee and Kaya Henderson’s leadership, was turning around, embracing core ed reform principles. Few Washingtonians wanted to see DCPS cast into the dustbin of history. As long as this was the looming future, any decision we made about approving new schools or new school growth was seen through this apocalyptic lens.

So I, along with my board chair, penned an op-ed in the Washington Post arguing that ‘the balance we have, with a thriving public charter sector and strong traditional schools, is about right.’ We didn’t impose caps to maintain this balance. But by closing low-performing schools, only letting high-performing schools grow, and approving only the strongest new applicants, we kept our market share below 50%.

Did this win over everyone? No. But it ensured that the mayor remained a strong charter supporter. It kept any discussion of limiting charter growth off the city council agenda. And it kept the average D.C. resident broadly comfortable with an education reform movement supportive of both sectors.”

In other words, Mr. Pearson’s and Mr. McCoy’s motive behind their polemic was purely political. They reasoned that by closing lower performing schools, severely restricting the ability of existing charters to replicate and expand, and blocking the approval of new charter school applicants, they could drive the proportion of students attending charters to remain under fifty percent of the total number of public school students enrolled, thereby making the movement more palatable to elected officials and other citizens.

I have spent thousands of words arguing that the DC PCSB has made it too difficult to open new schools and allow existing schools to add additional students. Now I understand completely why nothing was done to reverse the situation. But the explanation makes me severely depressed. The outcome of the strategy set by Mr. Pearson was that students were blocked from attending charters who could have greatly benefited from access to these schools.

In addition, the plan did not work. In the “Crossing the Chasm Isn’t Enough” final section of the Education Next blog post Mr. Pearson admits that the District’s charters are facing resistance like never before:

“But the rise of white progressive politics in the city, in combination with a somewhat re-energized union movement, has left our schools fighting attacks on multiple fronts–and often losing. We lost last year when the City Council regulated suspensions and expulsions. And we lost this year when the City Council mandated open charter-school governing-board meetings. We know there is more waiting in the wings – limits to growth, teacher representatives on charter boards, efforts to control our spending and our curricula.”


The sad conclusion is that Mr. Pearson’s effort to placate the public has backfired. The only true outcome of purposely stalling charter expansion has been reduce the number of kids attending charters in the nation’s capital.

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