I always respected Steve Bumbaugh’s contributions when he served on the DC Public Charter School Board. His passionate concern was always for those at the bottom of the economic ladder, the very students that the charter movement was established to serve. The fact is that when charter schools first arrived on the scene in Washington, D.C., the main reason that parents sent their offspring to one was for safety. It was probably a much better decision for poor families to keep their kids at home in 1996 for there was very little education going on in the traditional school system. DCPS was characterized by physically deteriorating classrooms and educational malpractice from the lectern.
In a column by Mr. Bumbaugh printed by Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post, he describes an unnamed no-excuses charter school that four years ago he observed treating children like prisoners. He wrote:
“I discovered that children as young as 3 years old could spend an entire day in seclusion, away from their classmates, if they were wearing the wrong color shoes. I am dumbstruck. Is this even legal?”
I have personally visited many charters in Wards 7 and 8 and I have never seen an environment like the one he describes.
The opinion piece goes on to call for representation on the governing body of the DC PCSB to mirror the low-income student bodies that charters admit. From the article:
“In the District, 80 percent of families attending charters are eligible for free and reduced lunch, but the charter school board has not in its 25-year history appointed a single board member who lives in poverty. Why not adjust the PCSB’s contours to reflect the communities in which these schools are located instead of incessantly asking poor Black people to acclimate?”
The DC PCSB has done one thing consistently well since its founding twenty five years ago. It has focused on quality, allowing good schools to grow and replicate while closing those where academic progress has not been met. This mission has remained true no matter the racial and socioeconomic makeup of its members. I would hate to do anything that would disrupt this tradition.
But Mr. Bumbaugh does bring up a crucial point. Despite the hundreds of millions of dollars that have been spent on this alternative sector, standardized test scores are not better for Black children compared to the regular schools. It is something I’ve noticed and written about for years.
The problem is due to a tremendous contradiction that exists in our local movement. Charter schools were designed to be fountains of innovation in teaching students that in the past were not well served by regular schools, and yet they are held beginning in their second year to high standards as measured by the Performance Management Framework. I would imagine it is extremely difficult to try something new when faced with the real possibility of closure. This is the reason that with time more and more charters resemble the schools for which they were meant to be an alternative.
Unfortunately, after writing about and supporting charters for over a decade I do not have a solution to this dilemma. However, I do know one thing. If you spend time in any of our charters your eyes will almost certainly tear up with joy due to the care and passion and energy being put forth by those doing the work.