- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 20, 2003

The No Child Left Behind act, with its demands for accountability,hasputnew pressure on the D.C. schoolsystem,whichby every measure is one of the country’s worst. And District school officials casting about for an excuseforthiswoeful performance have found a new target: charter schools, publicly funded schools that operate outside of the traditional “district” school model — and outside of their control.

Thus did the school board president,PeggyCooper Cafritz, report to the House Committee on Government Reform last month that “over 50 percent of our charter schools are now failing.” She went on to say that “fly-by-night” charter operators had taken advantage of a too-lax system of school approval and oversight to form bad schools that drained funds from school system coffers.

Charter supporters were quick to retort that a 50 percent failure rate is hardly unusual in the District public school system. Further, to blame funding woes on charters is disingenuous, since they cost significantly less per-student than comparable District schools. What’s more, charters tend to draw students from the toughest neighborhoods and backgrounds who are costly to educate — youngsters for whom a charter school may be the last chance before they exit the education system altogether.

The good news is that, for many such youngsters, many District charter schools are doing a spectacular job. Mrs. Cafritz is wrong to suggest otherwise. The bad news is that this basket does contain some lemons — badly-managed schools or schools with low achievement. Six have already been closed and a few more probably should shut their doors.

Critics cite shutdowns as proof of the folly of this education reform strategy. Advocates respond that it illustrates accountability at work. At least the charter movement — as opposed to traditional public school systems — buries its dead rather than keeping them permanently on life support.

In the end, charter-school accountability runs in two directions. The charter school must satisfy its clients (students and their parents). But it must also satisfy its “authorizer,” the public body that ushered it into existence and that controls its fate.

The District of Columbia has twosuchauthorizers:the Board of Education (chaired by Mrs. Cafritz), which gave birth to 17 of today’s charter schools; and the specialized “Public Charter School Board,” which parented the other 25 schools now operating.

Under the District’s charter law, these are the entities that make life and death decisions forschools.Theydecide whether to grant a charter and on what terms; whether the school is delivering the promised results and deserves to continue; and whether it is obeying those laws and regulations that weren’t waived for it.

How, then, are charter authorizers doing? Earlier this month, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute issued a pioneering report that gives a state-by-state assessment of authorizer performance across America. In this review, D.C.’s authorizers fared reasonably well, earning an average “B” grade and coming in ninth out of 24 jurisdictions.

Yet, the District’s political and educational establishment received only a C for “charter friendliness,” with particularly low marks for authorizer “support and external accountability.” In essence, nobody watches the authorizers themselves — and they too are hamstrung by the District’s generally weak school accountability system.

This is a shame. The nation’s capital boasts one of America’s liveliest charter sectors, with 42 schools enrolling nearly 15 percent of all the schoolchildren in town. The mayor has been supportive, as have some business leaders, philanthropists and City Council members. Yet, charters are still scapegoated for failings that are ubiquitous to the District’s public education system, and relations between them and the public school establishment are chilly.

Mrs. Cafritz and her colleagues would do the District’s children more good if they would stop treating charter schools as scapegoats for public education’s woes and instead take seriously the job of helping them succeed. Effective charter schools have demonstrated their ability to raise student achievement, especially for poor and minority students. But if they are going to help bring needed academic gains to D.C. and the rest of America, they need adequate infrastructure and financial and policy help from policy-makers and authorizers alike. Otherwise, this promising and popular education reform will not realize its potential to aid our nation in leaving no child behind.

Chester E. Finn Jr. is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

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