D.C. Charters: History, Analysis, and Recommendations for the Future

Published December 1, 2005

The Progressive Policy Institute’s (PPI) 21st Century Schools Project released a study in early October outlining the history of the charter school movement in Washington, D.C. and issuing several recommendations for improvement.

In “Capital Campaign: Early Returns on District of Columbia Charters,” author and PPI policy analyst Sara Mead reports that while D.C. charters have realized successes since their inception in 1996, certain improvements would strengthen their overall performance.

“Charter schools in the District of Columbia have accomplished incredible things in terms of their growth, number of students served, and high-quality schools creating educational options for students who previously had none, but that is not enough,” Mead said. “Too many charter schools in D.C. aren’t performing as well as they need to be, and D.C. leaders need to do more in terms of both accountability and supporting charter schools in order for the movement to succeed.”

Unique History

Mead’s report, which provides a detailed history of D.C.’s charter school movement along with demographics, performance records, current challenges, and recommendations, tackles a complicated subject, said Nelson Smith, president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

“Charters in D.C. are a remarkably complex topic, and Sara Mead does a real good job of exposing some of the political and historical complexities,” Smith said.

Smith, the first executive director of the D.C. Public Charter School Board–one of two authorizing agencies for D.C. charters–said residents are often sensitive about the city’s unique government structure. While D.C. citizens are self-governed, with an elected mayor and council, the U.S. Congress must approve the city budget.

Mead’s report puts the birth of D.C. charters into that context, sketching the interplay of Congress, former President Bill Clinton, and the District’s city government. When Congress passed the Omnibus Consolidated Rescissions and Appropriations Act in 1996, which included the D.C. education reform law authorizing charters, federal legislators put D.C. government under the authority of a Control Board and temporarily stripped the city’s Board of Education of its powers.

Mixed Results

“The politics of how charter schools came into being and the alliances around them are very important,” Mead said. “We often tend to think that because charter schools aren’t part of the traditional school system they should be immune to politics, but actually charter schools are very dependent on the political climate. That’s what determines the laws under which they operate, and the extent of political support can have significant impacts on resources and other issues that impact charter school quality.”

Mead’s report provides a substantial snapshot of the current state of D.C.’s charter school movement. The district’s 42 charter schools enroll 20 percent of its students, a larger share than any other city in the nation.

According to the report, charter schools are slightly outperforming D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) on the Stanford-9 test mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act and are in minimally better shape than DCPS in terms of Adequate Yearly Progress, while serving more minority and low-income students. Mead warns, however, that authorizers need more effective systems to identify underperforming schools and students.

“Longer term, I think the most important issue for D.C. charters is improving school achievement,” Mead said. “Support for charter schools–parent demand, political support, philanthropic and other outside funding–depends on schools delivering good outcomes for kids, but too many charter schools in D.C. aren’t delivering the student achievement outcomes they promised.”

Policy Recommendations

D.C.’s charter school law provides for several authorizing agencies. In her report, Mead compares charter schools operated by the independent D.C. Public Charter School Board (PCSB) to those operated by the D.C. Board of Education. She finds PCSB schools outperform Board of Education schools, for which she generally reserves her strongest criticism.

“The Board of Education in particular has had a rocky history,” she said. “Its initial forays into chartering were disastrous; a portion of the Board has been hostile to charter schools. It has conflicting responsibilities in terms of authorizing charter schools while also running the school district system with which they are competing.”

Brenda Belton, executive director of the Board of Education’s charter authorization and oversight division, agreed the agency has room to improve.

“Ms. Mead raised some very good points, some of which I will bring up directly with the Board of Education,” Belton said. “For instance, the Board needs to be more clear about its role as an authorizer. Steps are being taken now. The Board is preparing to vote on an ad hoc committee whose sole responsibility would be charters. That is a first.”

Focus Enhances Performance

Josephine Baker, executive director of the D.C. Public Charter School Board–an entity Mead criticizes for layering the chartering process with too much paperwork–acknowledged that the PCSB’s singular purpose makes her job different.

“Our attention to charter schools is undivided–what we do is all we do,” Baker said. “Across the nation, districts pay less attention to charter schools because they are saddled with other duties. The D.C. Board of Education is not different in that regard. They have more responsibilities than we do.”

Nelson Smith, of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, believes the PCSB’s focus allows it to work more interactively with charter schools, while the Board of Education faces more public pressures.

“The Public Charter School Board concentrates on public charter schools. They can think carefully about accountability systems and oversight goals, and importantly, they work with schools collaboratively,” Smith explained. “The Public Charter School Board has the time and space to really think about charter schools.”

Achievement Is Paramount

Mead believes both authorizers would benefit from focusing on their comparative advantages, such as the opportunity the Board of Education has to foster change in public schools by working more strategically with the charters it authorizes.

Ultimately, though, Mead insisted that improving performance is key, not only in Board of Education and PCSB charters, but in all public schools.

“We know that quality schools can deliver impressive achievement results for students who are at significant academic disadvantages,” Mead said. “The challenge is for operators in schools that aren’t doing well to learn from these and other high-performing schools, and also for authorizers to either arrange for interventions so these schools improve, or, in some cases, to shut down those that are truly failing.”

Kate McGreevy ([email protected]) is a freelance education writer living in New Mexico. She formerly worked with the Cesar Chavez Public Charter Schools for Public Policy in Washington, DC.

For more information …

The full text of Sara Mead’s report is available on the Progressive Policy Institute’s Web site at http://www.ppionline.org/ppi_ci.cfm?knlgAreaID=110&subsecid=134&contentid=253547.

For more information on: the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, visit http://www.publiccharters.org; the D.C. Public Charter School Board, http://www.DCpubliccharter.com; the D.C. Board of Education, http://www.k12.DC.us/DCps/boe/boehome.html.