EDELIN: Charter-Traditional School Collaboration Must Center on Student Achievement

DCPS and public charter school officials are hailing the uptick in enrollment for the 2015-16 school year. (Courtesy of DCPS)
DCPS and public charter school officials are hailing the uptick in enrollment for the 2015-16 school year. (Courtesy of DCPS)

Just days ago, a U.S. federal court issued a preliminary order in a case that has been progressing through the legal system. The D.C. Association for Chartered Public Schools, with Eagle Public Charter School and Washington Latin Public Charter School as co-litigants, is asking the court to enforce District law. D.C. law requires that every District public school student at the same grade level or with the same special-education needs be funded with equal local taxpayer dollars.

At this point, the District government’s motion to dismiss the case has been denied by the judge. This matters because an important study undertaken by Mary Levy, a respected independent analyst of D.C. public schools — chartered and traditional — found that over eight years, public charter students have been illegally underfunded. Over the past eight years, D.C.’s public charter school students received between $2,600 and $1,600 less from the District government than their peers in the traditional public school system.

District of Columbia charter schools educate 44 percent of all D.C. public school children. At one time, public charters were perceived as new, experimental and perhaps impermanent; today, however, this education reform is strong, mature and here to stay. Accordingly, charter public school leaders must be part of the policy-making process as we address not only the enforcement of District law but also the future of public education in our nation’s capital going forward.

Publicly funded and open to all District-resident children without academic selection and, like every public school, tuition-fees, charters operate independent of the traditional system. Simultaneously, D.C.’s independent Public Charter School Board, whose members are appointed by the mayor, holds charters accountable for improved student performance.

Charter public schools are important for many reasons. For example, they have boosted high school graduation rates, with charters’ rate currently 11 percent higher than D.C. Public Schools. Before charters were introduced, an estimated half of all students dropped out before high school graduation. They have delivered stronger student performance as measured by the city’s standardized tests, especially in our most underserved neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River.

Obviously, public funding equity is the starting point for enhanced cooperation between charters and DCPS. From that new beginning of simple justice, the District’s public charter schools have identified points of cooperation that could work to the benefit of every D.C. student, regardless of which type of public school attended.

First among these is that since school attendance is mandatory, it is the responsibility of government to ensure that every child is offered a high-quality public education. Currently, not all families have access to such options in their neighborhoods. This social exclusion is especially acute at the secondary school level in communities that are most underserved.

Clearly, getting serious about increasing student achievement requires sharing best practices, which would be greatly enhanced by applying the same levels of accountability and investment to both DCPS and charters. This would include sharing the benefits of everything learned from collaborative research on student performance — especially with children of color from impoverished backgrounds, who comprise the majority of D.C. students.

Wrap-around social services that ensure a quality education can be effectively delivered to children impacted by family poverty — this is a good example of a pressing but neglected need that must be collectively addressed in a strategic way.

Adult education is one such long-overlooked problem since some 40 percent of our public school parents are functionally illiterate. As well, the difficult and entrenched issue of re-engaging disconnected youths with the rest of society, and the needs of English Language Learners, including immigrant and undocumented students, cannot be addressed by charters alone.

Yet another urgent problem is the need to provide excellent alternative educational settings for chronically suspended and expelled students. My organization has identified a potential provider for that service, but all parties need to be involved.

There are public schools in all D.C. neighborhoods, but they are not all of high quality. Many charter school leaders are prepared to offer a preference to local students, as some political leaders favor, on a voluntary basis – but the demand for high quality schools cannot rest on the backs of charter schools alone. Every neighborhood school must become a quality option. A compulsory charter school preference would prevent thousands of students who live in neighborhoods with underperforming schools from accessing high-quality options elsewhere.

Let charters and DCPS work together — placing student achievement first. For the sake of our children, let us make that the test and standard of collaboration.

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