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D.C. Charter Schools: The Pros, the Cons, and the Unending Debate

Washington, D.C. has always had some excellent schools. And it’s always been a struggle for working people to get their kids into them. Historically, a household’s postal address dictated where the children would learn. Many parents and guardians sought private alternatives or left the city. What were they looking for? Choice. Enter the charter school concept.

Professor Ray Budde of UMass Amherst suggested in the 1970s that states grant charters for experimental departments in public schools. This ultimately led to the School Reform Act—a 1996 federal law that introduced charter schools to Washington, D.C. Millions of children now attend charter schools, and hundreds of new charters open their doors annually to meet popular demand. Since the beginning, D.C. has played a leading role in this grand experiment—for better or for worse. Today, close to half of the District’s public school students go to charter schools.

What Charter Schools’ Advocates Say About Them

The main selling point is simple. The best thing about charter schools is the way they set out to confront unbalanced opportunity. The intent is to provide children with access to the educational environments that will help them succeed.

How does it work? Each new school is “chartered” by an agreement with a designated authorizer who allows the school to be formed. An authorizer might be a profit-based corporation, a nonprofit, or a board of education. Charter schools are still public schools, free to attend and, at least in theory, open to everyone’s children. Some are dedicated to special-needs children. 

What other benefits do charter schools have to offer? It’s all about independence from the traditionally regulated public school system. Like private schools, public charter schools may make their own decisions about schedules, course materials, hiring, health closures, discipline, and suspensions. 

What Charter Schools’ Detractors Say About Them

What are the common complaints about charter schools? Mainly…

  • Clout. The D.C. Board of Ethics and Government Accountability has received complaints that charter school advocates behave as unregistered lobbyists. Without question, charter school advocacy groups wield substantial financial and political influence. Over the years, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation (of Walmart fame) have given charter proponents substantial financial support. Since the Clinton era, every administration has included prominent advocates for charter schools, including the Trump administration’s Betsy DeVos.
  • Lack of accountability. D.C.’s charter schools are particularly open to this criticism because they need not hold open meetings or answer public information requests. A proposed transparency law reflects the ongoing controversy.
  • Problematic authorizers. About 200 charters close annually. Responsibility often lies with undisciplined entities that authorize them.
  • Involvement of for-profit education. For-profit companies manage some charters, although many states won’t allow this, citing significantly poorer educational outcomes.
  • De facto discriminatory practices. The NAACP has called for a halt to charter authorizations until segregation is meaningfully addressed. Moreover, the charters’ startup mindset may make keep women, who make up the majority of schoolteachers, in precarious jobs.

Some critics say this grand experiment has turned into a two-track school system, competing with each other for financial support; and the Washington Teachers’ Union lacks the power to exert healthy checks and balances.

How D.C.’s History With Charter Schools Fuels Local Debate

President Bill Clinton was impressed with the idea of charter schools, and ultimately signed the School Reform Act into law. Eleanor Holmes Norton was not so impressed. Norton, the District’s non-voting Delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives, objected to charter schools as federal impingement on D.C. home rule.

But pro-charter voices quickly got organized, starting with Friends of Choice in Urban Schools (FOCUS), founded in 1996. The charter proponents have earned a reputation for seizing resource advantages. In 2004, they prompted Senator Mary Landrieu (D-La.) to legislate real estate discounts for charters into the D.C. Appropriations Act—without consulting with D.C. government first. The battle over the right to school buildings never ended.

The D.C. charter system is not a for-profit affair. The schools are authorized and overseen by the Public Charter School Board. But this publicly funded board has adopted an anti-regulatory style. And so it is that D.C. charter schools, every year, as the Washington City Paper puts the point, “funnel hundreds of thousands of dollars from their budgets to the D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools, FOCUS [Friends of Choice in Urban Schools], and other private organizations that then lobby government agencies against efforts to regulate these schools.” 

The debate continues.

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