The public school system in Washington, DC is unique in that it consists of two separate school systems, each independent from the other, each educating about half of the city’s public school students. David Osborne at the Progressive Policy Institute outlines the nature of this dual system:
The older of the two, the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS), uses a “unified governance model” that emerged more than a century ago, in which the district operates all but one of its 113 schools and employs all their staff, with central control and most policies applied equally to most schools. . . . Racing against them—and carrying 44 percent of D.C. public school students—is a very different vehicle, designed and built largely in this century. This model does not own or operate any schools. Instead, it contracts with 62 independent organizations—all of them nonprofits—to operate 115 schools. It negotiates contracts with operators, lets parents choose their schools, shuts down those that repeatedly fail to achieve their performance goals, and replicates those that are most effective. We know these as charter schools, authorized by the Public Charter School Board (PCSB).
Washington’s dramatic experiment with charter schools dates back to 1996 when the PCSB was created. Since then, enrollment in charter schools has grown steadily. In 2007, the city elected a new mayor, Adrian Fenty, who promised to dramatically reform the city’s schools. Fenty stripped the school board of its power and consolidated control of the school system under the new office of chancellor. The new chancellor was Michelle Rhee, who previously directed a teacher training organization but had no experience as a school administrator. Rhee’s short tenure as chancellor, from 2007 to 2010, was defined by stormy public controversies. Many underperforming schools were shut down, and many underperforming teachers and principals were fired. Parents and teachers frequently protested the lack of transparency with which these decisions were made.
While Rhee became nationally famous for her radical approach to reform, the city’s reliance on charter schools began long before her tenure as chancellor and continued long after. Rhee left the city in 2010 when Mayor Fenty was voted out of office—due in part to the unpopularity of his education policy—but the new chancellor was Kaya Henderson, Rhee’s former deputy. Henderson, who was appointed by the new mayor, Vincent Gray, largely continued Rhee’s policies but in a less confrontational manner. Only under Henderson’s time in office has charter school enrollment begun to draw equal with enrollment in traditional public schools.
The difference between a charter school and a traditional public school is that a charter school is independently managed. A charter school is run by a private organization and is not a part of the city government. Instead, the city hires the charter school to teach some of its students, essentially as a freelance independent contractor. In other words, the charter school receives public school funding to teach public school students but is not a part of the public schools. Parents have to apply to send their children to charter schools—usually, admission is on a lottery basis—but the school charges no tuition.
This independence from the public school system is precisely why charter schools are loved and hated. Depending on who you talk to, charter schools are either the best or the worst thing to ever happen to American education.
To supporters of charter schools, municipal governments are the most ineffectual organizations imaginable. Very few people vote in municipal elections, so city employees can band together to elect whatever candidate they choose. Over the long term (the story goes) city employees are paid more to do less work, which is why city services like buses and schools are in such bad shape.
In the private sector, inefficient companies go out of business. The pressure of the free market forces companies to be efficient, or else they’ll be replaced by ones that are. In this sense, a charter school is designed to be a public school that’s open to the pressures of the market. If a charter school does poorly on standardized tests then the city can stop buying its product. Parents can also choose the charter schools they prefer, and schools that can’t attract students will be shut down.
Opponents of charter schools are less optimistic about free markets. To them, the private sector is where the rich get richer by squeezing the poor, and companies win by underpaying their employees and offering the most boring, homogenous product possible. They feel that the public sector exists to provide the sort of services that everyone needs and no one wants to pay for. Charter schools, they argue, are incentivized to pay teachers as little as possible, and only teach the most minimal curriculums required for standardized tests.
Proponents of each side are passionate and vocal in the media. Now that Washington, DC has so thoroughly embraced charter schools, the city’s schools are commonly described as either a triumphant success story or a tragic cautionary tale. For example, media outlets like The Huffington Post and Salon commonly carry articles with titles like “Failure of DC Education Reform Initiatives Revealed,” “How Mayor Gray Is Failing DC Public Schools,” and “Exposing the charter school lie.” A New York Times opinion piece titled “Why School Choice Fails” says in summation that “The charters consistently perform worse than the traditional schools, yet they are rarely closed.”
Meanwhile, a story in Politico Magazine under the heading “What Works” declares “In Washington, DC, charter schools offer an unorthodox education in grit and perseverance.” The article begins confidently—”Success, it turns out, is quiet.”—and reports that “DC charter school students consistently score higher on tests than those at traditional public schools in the capital.”
The Washington Post also cites figures saying that the city’s charter schools outperform traditional public schools, but critics insist that these numbers are either misleading or fraudulent, or else they cite contrary data. Many opponents of charter schools argue that standardized tests can never be a good measure of school performance, because a good education is simply not something you can measure.
Among most observers, however, a consensus emerges that charter schools are usually comparable to traditional public schools. Charter schools are not a revolutionary panacea, but neither are they an apocalyptic disaster. Admitting this to be the case, each side begins to make more nuanced arguments. Opponents of charters ask: why go through all this trouble with nothing to show for it? They feel the marginal gains of charter schools are not worth the threat to teachers’ job security and the upheaval of whole school districts. Supporters, meanwhile, optimistically predict that charters will get better and better over time and will someday be the clear preference.
Meanwhile, in Washington, DC, charter schools are the new normal. Every day, when students go off to school, some of them go to charter schools and some go to district schools. Initially, critics saw charter schools as a radical idea imposed on the school system by outsiders who knew nothing about education. This is no longer the case: charter school reformers are educators themselves, who teach classes and manage schools. As one pundit puts it, “It’s not just ‘reformers’ against ‘teachers,’ but one set of teachers against another set of teachers. . . . [Reformers] are people who’ve experienced teaching in low-income schools and simply come to different policy conclusions.” Charter schools in Washington are simply another form of business as usual.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- What do you think about the arguments for and against charter schools? Do you generally trust municipal school departments to make good decisions, or would you like to see more private sector options for schools?
- Do you have any firsthand experience with public education in Washington, DC? How do local people feel about their school choices?
- What do you think will happen to charter schools in DC? Do you think they will someday outperform district schools, or do you expect the current results to continue?
- If charter schools aren’t the solution to education, then what is? What do you think a school system like Washington, DC’s should do now to improve education?
- Washington DC has created a unique experiment in public education, placing half of its students in the care of independent charter schools. Many observers feel that such a bold step could either be revolutionary or disastrous.
- Despite emotionally-charged rhetoric, charter schools usually perform about as well as traditional public schools: perhaps either a little bit better or a little bit worse.
- Even the biggest charter school advocate must admit that charter schools have not been the revolutionary solution to American education that many hoped they would be. Those who would like to see every child receive a top-quality education must now begin looking elsewhere for their revolutions.
Peter Bass, May 2016
© 2017 CYS