Twenty years ago this month, the nation’s first public charter school opened. Today, more than 1.6 million public school students are attending close to 5,000 public charter schools in 40 states and the District of Columbia.
Charter schools are public schools, but they operate independently of the traditional public school system. They have greater freedom to create their own academic cultures. Like every public school, charter schools are open to all students and receive funds from local taxpayer dollars. Unlike some magnet or academically selective public schools, charters cannot use admission tests or any other selective criteria to determine enrollment.
Many people who live and work in the nation’s capital may be surprised to learn that 41 percent of students in the District attend public charter schools. Designed to bring school choice to parents whose income otherwise would deny them that opportunity, charters have become increasingly popular. Half as many children are on waiting lists to get into D.C. charters as the number who attend them.
The District’s public charter schools also have profoundly improved student academics. Charter high schools graduate 80 percent of their students in four years, compared with only 53 percent in the city-run school system. Public charter schools also outperform their traditional counterparts on standardized reading and math tests, and have a higher share of high school students accepted to college.
Charters’ success is especially important because they enroll a higher share of students from low-income families than the traditional school system, in part because they tend to locate in neighborhoods where regular public schools are failing.
Despite the many successes of this education reform, the D.C. government could do much more to support students.
The law requires the city to fund all students equally enrolled in public school — charter or traditional — but over the past five years, the city has funded each charter student about $2,000 less each year than those in the city-run school system.
The city also is legally required to make school buildings that are surplus to the school system’s requirements available to charter schools to buy or lease before offering them to private real estate developers. Instead, the D.C. government has contrived to sell former city-run school buildings to condominium developers, or simply to let them crumble.
Many public charter schools operate in subpar facilities because they have had to lease or buy and renovate non-school space. With access to more school buildings, many could expand to serve the more than 17,000 D.C. students who are on waiting lists for charter schools.
Public charter schools also have transformed the city’s traditional public schools. Their innovations motivated the District to take direct mayoral control over the city-run school system. This important reform has increased accountability and boosted standardized test scores and graduation rates in the city-run schools, although they still lag behind D.C. charters.
The D.C. government, however, continues to shortchange the children enrolled in the city’s public charter schools. After promising to end underfunding of charter schools, Mayor Vincent C. Gray failed to deliver. After putting out requests for bids on four former public school buildings — one of which has been abandoned for decades — just a single charter bid on one building was accepted.
We know that as D.C. residents have increasingly had access to public charter schools as an option, demand for their educational programs has exceeded charters’ ability to supply the number of places sought.
We also know that one of the strengths of this reform is its accountability. Charters can stay open only if sufficient numbers of parents send their children to them, and if the city’s Public Charter School Board thinks they are up to the job. About one-third of the charter schools that have opened have lost the right to operate, all of which were underperforming academically.
The city should back this education reform, which is critical to the prospects of the tens of thousands of disadvantaged D.C. children whom it has benefited. The prospects of a generation of children who are much more likely to graduate from high school and be accepted to college are far brighter than those of their predecessors before charter reform.
The District needs a mayor who will fund students in these schools of choice equally with their peers who are enrolled in the city-run school system and allow charters to acquire school buildings that the city no longer uses. Basic fairness and D.C. law require this.