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.