In Defense of Unequal Funding for Charter Schools Advocates want more tax money for charters, but a longtime charter supporter says we should just say no.

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Charter schools became a national sensation back in the 1990s, after conservatives quietly stole the idea from liberals. University of Massachusetts professor Ray Budde initially floated the concept. Albert Shanker, the legendary president of the American Federation of Teachers, embraced the idea. In 1988, he proposed establishing “charter schools” or “schools of choice,” designed and operated by innovative, high-performing teachers or principals.

At a time of national panic over school quality, charters were promoted as an elixir that would inject energy into public education. Unshackled from rules and regulations, they would thrive. They could pay teachers whatever they chose—and they’d have to excel because their livelihoods would depend on competing for students and money.

Washington owes its status as the capital of charters to a coincidence of history. The D.C. government teetered on bankruptcy just as Republicans took over Capitol Hill in the 1990s. And those Republicans, having bailed out the city financially, were eager to push conservative policies. District schools were famously wretched: The congressionally created financial control board found that the longer a child stayed in the public schools, the worse that child performed academically. Congress’ answer: charter schools.

“Congress simply told the city it had to set up a [charter school] board,” recalls Jeff Smith, executive director of DC Voice and a former member of the now-defunct D.C. Board of Education. More than a decade later, there are 52 schools, spread over 93 campuses, educating approximately 29,000 District children—some 38 percent of the total public school population.

“The purpose was to let a thousand flowers bloom,” says Brian Jones, chairman of the D.C. Public Charter School Board.


Today, the local charter scene includes some spectacular successes: Schools with names like KIPP, Friendship, SEED, Thurgood Marshall, and Hyde have all thrived. President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama paid a visit to a Capital City Charter School program in Columbia Heights in 2009. That same year, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools ranked the District’s program second best in the nation, citing its charter law as a model of autonomy, funding equity and facilities support.

But the reality is that there is increasing evidence many charters really aren’t achieving their stated purpose. Innovation is rare and academic superiority is mostly mythology. “Upon close examination, claims of widespread charter-school success do not hold up to scrutiny,” says Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, who studies charters nationwide.

A report released in 2009 by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University underscored that assessment. Examining schools in 15 states and the District—which account for roughly 70 percent of all charter students in the country—the study re-examined purported math gains by charter students. Its conclusion: “Only 17 percent [of those students] out-performed regular public schools; while 37 percent under performed and 46 percent showed no difference.” A more in-depth examination of District charter schools revealed “no discernible difference in reading and math gains between charter school and traditional public school performance.”

“We have a million charters; most are not high performing,” says one senior-level DCPS manager who requested anonymity. “Why is it better to let 1,000 flowers bloom when 900 of those flowers are a waste of money?”

The answer to that, of course, is politics: More than a decade later, charters have their own constituency—a constituency that isn’t talking about ethereal notions like competition and quality, but is instead fighting for tangible things like guaranteed money. And with more than a third of D.C.’s school kids enrolled and friends in high places, that’s a fight charter advocates may well win. But should they?

Money may not be the root of all evil, as the adage goes. But it can sure misdirect a conversation. For the past two years, charter proponents have engaged in a myopic debate about whether the District government has or hasn’t fairly allocated money to charters.

Among the issues not discussed: Just who is actually benefiting from the system? Is it middle-class families adept at navigating the bureaucracy—or poor people who desperately needed to escape badly performing traditional schools? Is there unfair competition, as DC Voice’s Smith suggests when he recounts the laments of DCPS principals whose schools are in close proximity to charter programs? Should there be an agreement similar to free-trade accords, establishing geographic boundaries and other operational restrictions? Are charters realizing their intended mission, or have they become a minimally-regulated second-track system that mimics the mediocrity of DCPS?

These questions have little to do with spreadsheets. But the answers circle back to cash.

Our Readers Say

Interesting. While you point out 'traditional' public charters, what about the non k-12 programs. Two of the 19 applications this year are for Adult Ed/GED programs. Do these types of programming take funding away from DCPS?
Let me be the first to disagree with you Ms. Rose-Barras. As someone who attended traditional public schools and has family members who work in traditional public schools, I feel, with the limited knowledge I have about charters, this article is flawed.

Your assertion that charters do not serve students with special needs is too broad. Many charter schools, by law, serve students with special needs. It's DCPS who, for so many years, neglected to serve students with even the mildest learning disability, and the SPED department within DCPS is still not operating well according to media reports. DCPS still funds private tuition for children with special needs and transportation to schools at great distances.

Another assertion you made is that charters suffer from lack of oversight. Umm... what is the Public Charter School Board if it is not an oversight body. Charter schools also have to comply with demands from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, so I am not sure about these rogue operations you're referring to.

My understanding about the yard signs seen around town is that charters get "danced around" at budget time. Which is a polite way of saying that city plays games with the facilities money. Have you ever visited a charter school? Most are in buildings that are not comparable to DCPS schools and are often much more expensive to operate.

The charge that teachers are not certified is also an interesting one. Those that I know, and certainly that's not any research based sample, are highly qualified in the subjects they teach. Many arrived at charters after teaching in public schools from around the country. I would invite the reader to examine that charge carefully. There are charter schools that groom individuals to teach who may be career changers, but so does many other traditional public school systems.

There are a few other things I take issue with, but I don't want to turn this into a dissertation. I will say that improved security or the perception of security in charter schools by parents is not something to dismiss. I also reject the notion that there is unfair competition with neighborhood schools. Name one charter school in Ward 3 please.

Finally, I would say that to hold up the failure of one school to indict the work of all charters and say that they are not worthy to receive a proportional share of my tax dollars is unfair. In fact, the troubles of William Doar PCS, to me, underscores the effective oversight of charters. When things aren't working, schools are closed.
I think increasing oversight over charters may be a good thing, as this could bring attention to the problems faced by struggling charter schools. I'm not sure that charter schools should receive more funding in exchange for submitting to greater oversight though. Public schools need to enroll all of the applying students in the neighborhood, as Jonetta pointed out, and thus have a legitimate claim to greater funding than schools that do not serve as wide a student population.
Correct me if I am wrong, but when Congress forced charters on the District, I vaguely remember their funding structure as being different and more flexible than traditional public schools (thus requiring less funding from D.C.). Charters have more autonomy with their budgets, can fundraise and make decisions WITHOUT interference of Council. Help me with this one please but I will research this one. Charters came in like gangbusters with all these shiny tools. Today, especially in Ward 8, charters are disrespectful of parents and the community and are no better than our public schools. I want them OUT! And the funding redirected to community partnerships.
I just wish Ms. Baras would get the issues sorted out in her own head before trying to write an article that would make sense to people unfamiliar with the topic. She failed to clearly explain why equity currently doesn't exist and what equity would look like. It's not simply a matter of throwing more money at charter schools. And more money would not be taken from DCPS for charters, unless students are leaving DCPS for charters- isn't the money for the kids? Further, she confuses the issues of open enrollment versus neighborhood enrollment, coming close to suggesting that charter schools can select students by saying their students come in at higher levels of proficiency - not true at all. It's just the opposite. There are a number of DCPS students that are selective, whereas no charter school can screen students. The students most likely to come to charters are those whose neighborhood schools are the lowest-performing, meaning these kids are coming with deficits and more often from low-income neighborhoods. DCPS schools in Ward 3 have economic selectivity in that you have to be able to afford a million dollar home to be in-boundary. If she doesn't know the level of oversight that the Charter School Board already has in place, she hasn't done good research, or wants to feign ignorance. She also confused the Doar issue. It was Charter Board oversight that said you have the choice of cutting off the bad part (the high school) or closing the whole thing. That seems like better management of the city's investments. There are many other things to take issue with, but the last is her suggestion that she has always been a supportive of choice - vouchers maybe, but not charters. Who is the longtime supporter she refers to in the headline? Certainly it's not her. If she was such a long time supporter she would have made the effort to get more than a superficial understanding of charter schools and the issues they have faced in this city. That's something any good writer should do, regardless of their particular bias.
I actually agree with Saunders (I can't believe I just wrote that).
Subject charters to the same geographic-based admission requirements as traditional DCPS, as well as to performance standards, and then let's talk parity in funding.
But, as Ms Barras correctly pointed out, then they wouldn't really be charters, now would they.

Please check zillow or numerous other real-estate sources before claiming purchase of a $1 million house is required to live in Ward 3 or is typical of the minority of Ward 3 resident students in the public schools. You could start by traveling Wisconsin Ave or MacArthur Blvd to see condos, apartments and houses including many for rent. Lots of housing available at below many Crestwood prices.

And why Ward 3 kids in public schools should bear a burden of being bullied by guilty liberals ho confuse them with those whose parents are paying $30K annually for independent schools is beyond me. But, the behavior is not beyond you.

As for Jonetta's confusion: Great to see her appreciate how little she and we know about the charter school landscape. No public education audits means no uniformly reliable information.

Before charters, the performance of DCPS was not bad in the rich part of town, terrible everywhere else. The loss of students and funding brought about by the competing charters caused DCPS to wake up and improve performance. So operating two systems has not been inefficient; to the contrary, it has goaded DCPS to be better. For that reason alone the charters should continue.
Secondly, the growth of the number of students speaks for itself. The parents of 29557 students took a hard look at their DCPS choices and opted for a charter school. How can anyone say that they are not doing the best for their children?
Saunders and Barras are both wrong. Cane is right. (I can't believe I just wrote that).

Here's what Jonetta needs to read and re-read before she starts writing: Charter schools are *required to* and do serve students with special needs. Charter schools accept anyone in the city who wants to go, with oversubscription handled by random lottery.

Funding should be the same for every child no matter which public school they attend. The only differences might be to provide extra resources for students with special needs or who are especially disadvantaged. That way public schools -- whether charter or district -- would work extra hard to make themselves attractive to and cater to those disadvantaged students. There should NOT be funding differences based on the school they attend or the regulatory framework under which they operate.

The money that follows a student should not be reduced because his teacher is not unionized or increased because the teacher is unionized. That would be stupid.

Fundamentally the challenge here seems to be how to slice the pie of public school funding. If you want greater efficiency, make the per-student funding flat and create a PCSB with teeth. It's true that low performing charters are a huge drag, but starving the beast to kill the parasites doesn't seem like the best approach.
Tax funding should be the same per student... and let DCPS or each individual charter negotiate with it's partners (employees, suppliers, etc.) how to spend it.

But that needs to be disaggregated somewhat:
- funding per regular students
- funding per special education students (perhaps even disaggregate that further by nature of disability)
- funding for facilities

- Perhaps also a separate fund to aid in the aquisition (or financing of aquisition)
of facilities when renting is inefficient
Can we PLEASE stop calling them "public charter schools"? They are "charter schools," but they were never intended to be "public schools."

In fact, the federal law that created charter schools in the District of Columbia specifically states that charter schools are NOT "public schools."

Charter schools are owned and operated by non-profit organizations, which are private entities under the Internal Revenue Code. Consider them to be government contractors, who receive their charter (i.e., contract) from a public regulatory/oversight body (i.e., the D.C. Public Charter School Board). They receive government funding under the terms of their contract with the government. If they fail to perform according to their contract, the contracts are supposed to be terminated -- but, for some reason, they are given much more leeway than most non-performing government contractors.

Even FOCUS, the preeminent lobbying organization for charter schools, acknowledges in its very name that these are not "public schools." Yes, they are "urban schools," but they are NOT "public schools."

Arguing that private, government contractors should get tax funding -- without proper government oversight strings -- that is equal to that given a public entity that provides the same public service is absolutely LUDICROUS!

Why are so many people hellbent on maintaining a dual system of "separate but equal" school systems within our nation's capital anyway??
@Kathy. My kids' school is called a Public Charter School and isn't owned by a non-profit. Its a public school with oversight by the DC Public Charter School Board. It has special education for those who need it. It has struggled with simple things like snow removal and less simple things like finding a permenant home. It is true that half of the teachers aren't certified but that's because the teacher certification test is only offered in English- half of are teachers are fluent in Chinese, teaching Chinese immersion classes. I've also kept an eye on poorly performing charter schools and have watched their charters be pulled. In contrast, my neighborhood school has been poorly performing for decades and its still open. That's ludicrous in my humble eyes. And to answer your question about so many people hellbent on maintaining a dual system of "separate but equal" school systems within our nation's capital... most of us are just parents trying to do the best for our kids.
Charter school advocates complain about the District not making more of the closed public schools available to charters. The fact is some charters do want to relocate to the former public school buildings and some don't. Take for example the very low performing Center City Public Charter Schools, the six Catholic schools which converted to charters three years ago. These schools are no more than a rent collecting machine for the Archdiocese of Washington, and they have no intention of moving into a buliding not owned by the Archdiocese of Washington. They will instead continue to collect rent from the city and post low test scores. These schools should never have received a charter in the first place.
Sorry, adinaINdc, but you are sadly mistaken in who owns and operates your child's charter school. If it is Washington Yu Ying, here's just one source that tells you about the operator:

"Washington Yu Ying Public Charter School in Washington, DC is a private company categorized under Public Elementary and Secondary Schools."


Charter schools in D.C. are NOT public schools. They are not owned or operated by the public. They are partially funded by the government under a government-contracting arrangement.
FYI: allows you to look up the most recently filed IRS tax forms on all nonprofit organizations. For example, Washington Yu Ying Public Charter School is owned and operated by a private company called WASHINGTON YU YING SCHOOL INC. and its data can be found on the Guidestar web site.

If you send your child to a D.C. charter school and are not aware that it is owned and operated by a private company, you should check out this site and inform yourself about who is educating your child. Your child is NOT attending a public school.
@Kathy you are correct in stating that charter schools are operated by non-profit organizations. The part that you have left out is the part where these schools are 1) publicly funded 2) required to take any student who is a resident of the District of Columbia regardless of academic ability or membership in a protected class under the Human Right Act 3) required to comply with the same regulations as DCPS schools including curriculum mapping to the state standards 4) required to administer the state's standardized test. Private schools aren't subject the above.

The difference between a charter and a DCPS operated neighborhood school is the management of resources. Sure, charters can raise money, but there are very few that have been overwhelmingly successful. Most fund-raising is targeted to bridge the gap between what the city provides for facilities, basic program offerings and what is necessary to remediate years of educational neglect.
@Kathy yes, the "company" you site is the school itself. It is its own 501c3 and it does its own fund raising. You made it sound like its a KIPP or a Lighthouse school, which its not. :S I think you're really being dishonest. And you failed to address any of my other points.

@Native Washington: thank you for pointing out that most schools fund-raise to fill the gaps, and there are certainly gaps.
Native Washingtonian,

"The difference between a charter and a DCPS operated school" is that a charter school is operated by a private company that is operating under a government-issued contract. Charter schools are run by government contractors, plain and simple.

Charter schools are required to accept D.C. children as students; however, they do NOT operate under the same disciplinary procedures as D.C. public schools. That's why they can send kids back to the public schools for breaking the charter school's rules. In that way, they are permitted to pick and choose their students, unlike DCPS -- which is required to educate ALL students who enroll.

In the case of charter schools, why do taxpayers put up with government contractors who are -- for the most part -- doing NO BETTER JOB than our public schools? We would be killing most of these contracts for non-performance or poor performance if they existed in any other area of the government.
My two kids attend a charter school in DC. Why? Because the teaching, academic standards, discipline, culture, and physical condition of many DC public schools are abominable (particularly the one in our neighborhood), and not an environment in which children can thrive. This is my opinion.

We cannot afford a private school, nor do we espouse the elitist attitude that goes along with attending such a school. We love living in the city, and refuse to move to the suburbs, as many do, to take advantage of VA public schools. The commute to work would cause us to loose the little valuable time we have with our kids.

Not many are keen or able to take the risk with their kids by throwing them into a public school in order to change the system, improve DCPS quality by forcing accountability from DCPS management, one family or child at a time. My family is FORTUNATE indeed to have the option of sending kids to a charter schools.

This is not to say that charter schools are perfect. They are all new schools, an experiment, and as such, some succeed and others fail. They should most certainly be held accountable for what they achieve or fail to achieve with the public money, relative to the quality offered by public schools. However, charter school children should not be penalized (by receiving lower per capita funding), just because their parents cannot bear sending them to places that destroy any chance for acquiring life-long love for learning. The charter alternative has emerged because - let's face it - the District's public school system is a shocking failure.

The supporters of a single public school system should look to the root causes of the system failure, rather than to the symptoms: underfunding charter school students will NOT improve public schools. Only policy decisions at the District and national level can accomplish that, and this will not happen if the American society does not prioritize education.
The last thing I'll say on the subject is this: It is much easier to hold a "government contractor" accountable than the political football known as DCPS.

adinalNDC, I would love to enroll my child at Yu Ying, but I was informed by the school that in the upper grades, only kids that are fluent In Chinese may start at the school. So I don't see how you can argue that it is a public school when the admission are so restricted. I'm glad it in option and working for you, but please me sensitive that the school is not at all like a typical DCPS school.
@Hillmom: I'm sorry that the school wasn't around when your kids were a bit younger because it is fantastic. But logic trumps sensitivity here and I suppose all immersion-style schools have this same issue. How would a child with no fluency enter, say 4th grade, with kids who have been learning the language since PreK? It only makes sense that the charter limits new enrollment after a certain age/grade (unless some dispensation could be made for those who speak Mandarin at home or who've been living in a Mandarin-speaking country).

This isn't a "problem" with the school, public or not. Instead, it's the nature of learning a vastly different language in an immersion setting. These kids aren't learning a second language the way the most Americans learned a second language (at least most of my peers did: in high school, conjugating verbs for an hour a day). They're learning by being talked at in this language for hours a day, year after year. They're learning by memorizing stroke order from kindergarten. They are learning through art and music (and even in their PE classes) from age four. And their entire curriculum is in both languages. Yes, they're learning math, science, civics, everything- in Chinese.

If you do a quick google search on language acquisition, you'll find that the younger you are and the more immersed you are, the easier it is to acquire new languages. But placing an older child in a setting like this would be a recipe for disaster. How would a 4th grader with no Chinese keep up with 4th grade math or science if she's completely lost in the language? There's no way she'd be able to catch up.

Jonetta Rose Barras’ claim that she is “a strong supporter of education choice” (February 25) surprised many in D.C.’s public charter school community. Her headline “In Defense of Unequal Funding (of charter schools)” is honest, but much of her article’s content is not.

As public schools, this city’s charters are entitled by D.C. law to the same public funding per-student as D.C.’s city-run schools. D.C.’s public charter schools are publicly funded but independently run. Charters cannot charge tuition or administer entrance exams. Since the first D.C. public charter schools opened 14 years ago, their popularity with parents has only increased; today, nearly 40 percent of all students enrolled in the city’s public schools attend charters.

The fact that D.C.’s government has long ignored its own law and consistently underfunded charters is scandalous. Charters serve a higher share of the city’s disadvantaged students than the traditional school system, and have delivered better results for students. By outperforming city-run schools from the fifth grade up, and achieving higher high-school graduation and college-acceptance rates than D.C.’s city-run schools, D.C.’s charters have proved that their independence from D.C.’s government benefits students.

Public charter schools have succeeded, despite the fact that their incoming students routinely arrive several grades behind. Charters that don’t make the grade are closed by the city’s Public Charter School Board, which rejects two of every three charter applications. D.C.’s successful charter schools provide a quality public education and deserve equal public funding. Instead, D.C.’s government unfairly and illegally discriminates against them.

Robert Cane
Executive Director
Friends of Choice in Urban Schools

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