As controversy continues to swirl around public education in the District of Columbia, with much misunderstanding and misinformation as well as genuine problems, District parents, guardians, and taxpayers might be forgiven for wondering what is going on in the District’s public schools lately. The news has been unrelentingly negative. From the scandal about inflated graduation rates and attendance data to the untimely resignation of the schools chancellor, the public has not been encouraged by media reports.
But while D.C. Public Schools re-examines and reforms its practices under new leadership, District residents should remember that the other half of D.C.’s public schools — which educates 48 percent of all District public school students — is flourishing with verified success. D.C.’s charter schools are taxpayer-funded, tuition-free public schools that operate independently from DCPS, the traditional school system, and are held accountable by the city’s independent charter board and the choice of families to enroll their children in them.
District public charter schools have brought a diverse set of strong educational programs to our communities for nearly a quarter of a century, with participation steadily rising to nearly half of all District students, with another 11,000 on waitlists hoping for a chance to join them. The confidence shown by this rising enrollment is based on many factors, but one is the high, on-time graduation rate of 74 percent — within four years. This compares to estimates of a meager 40 to 50 percent graduation rate before charters schools were allowed to operate.
Charter schools’ gains in graduation rates have been shared by students throughout the city: the on-time rate for African-American and economically disadvantaged charter students is almost identical to charters’ average rate. Unlike the traditional public schools, the graduation rates of charters are guaranteed to be accurate — for years, the District’s charter board has audited the transcript of every graduating student, an important safeguard against fraud and self-serving grade inflation. This is one of the benefits of having results externally audited, a move the city-run school system is now considering.
But higher graduation rates are only one measure of the hard work and smart thinking that charters invest in their students, as evidenced by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as The Nation’s Report Card. Administered nationally, without the stakes involved in citywide standardized tests and conducted among randomly selected groups of students, the latest figures show charter scores are up since the previous tests two years ago in three of four core subject measures.
This increase is more than any state in the nation. In fact, over the past decade, overall growth in test scores has been greater than any other state, and it has been achieved with a higher share of economically disadvantaged students and lower city funding per student than the traditional system.
Charters have been especially effective in the District’s most vulnerable and underserved neighborhoods. Charter students in Wards 7 and 8 are twice as likely to meet state standards for college and career-readiness as their peers in the traditional system.
No less importantly, these improvements in school quality have been accomplished while curricula have been enriched and pre- and after-school options multiplied. School quality has also risen because charters have made significant progress in reducing suspensions and expulsions while adopting more contemporary methods of ensuring school discipline, all without adversely impacting student instruction.
Of course, much more progress is needed, specifically to ensure that all D.C. students currently on waitlists can find a place at a charter school and that the city government fund D.C. public school students fairly. This simply means enforcing D.C. law, which requires equal funding for every D.C. public school student, charter or traditional, who is enrolled at the same grade or special education level.
The District government also needs to do a better job of ensuring that charter school facilities are a priority when it comes to the disposal of surplus public school buildings and that the allowance charters receive to help finance schoolhouse expenditures increases in line with real estate costs.
D.C.’s school system and the mayor to which it is accountable must work together to rebuild trust and ensure that families can have confidence in the integrity of the data produced by the traditional system. Part of this process should include learning how charters have produced strong improvements in student performance while being audited and held accountable.
Whatever next steps the schools system, mayor and city council members take, the District’s charter reform is continuing to deliver for D.C.’s students.
Edelin is executive director of the D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools.