- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 28, 2005

An estimated 62,000 students are expected to begin returning today to D.C. Public Schools, and 16,000 others are anticipated at charter schools. While there are high academic expectations for both groups, city officials should be putting more stock in charter schools.

As the agency responsible for reporting to the U.S. Department of Education, DCPS students have floundered for years. Two important pieces of federal legislation in the past decade — the 1996 law that established D.C. charter schools and the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act — prove, in their respective ways, that the educational lot of D.C. youths continues to fall short in DCPS while charter schools are using innovative ways to help students achieve.

Superintendent Clifford Janey, who is beginning his second year as schools chief, said Saturday that he doesn’t want DCPS judged by the past. To be sure, his is a reasonable request. But charter schools, the option most exercised by D.C. parents, simply outshine DCPS. Indeed, educators and others around the country who advocate public-school reform and school choice have been closely watching the District’s charter-school movement — and with good reason.

Take the KIPP Key Academy in Southeast. Key, a middle school with 320 students, posted the highest math scores in the city, despite the fact that its average fifth-grader comes to Key two years below grade level. Key delivers on its motto — No shortcuts, no excuses. Its alumni move ahead of many of their DCPS peers to attend Philips Exeter, Sidwell Friends and Georgetown Day private schools.

While not all D.C. charter schools can boast of such student achievements, the demand for charter schools has also meant a move away from one-size-fits-all curricula and teaching. Bilingual, special education and vocational charter schools are available, too. On Friendship Edison’s Woodson Campus in Northeast, students can earn up to 60 college credits before graduating high school. At Young America Works (YAW), a charter school in Northeast that caters to ninth- and 10th-graders, smart and energetic instructors teach teens what is expected of them in the workplace. Many of the students at YAW are troubled or special needs youth who formerly struggled mightily in DCPS schools. Yet, after two years at YAW, they are able to be mainstreamed into traditional school settings, if their parents so choose.

Those and other innovative charter schools prove beyond doubt that, given more choices, parents will continue to opt out of DCPS. Indeed, 14 charter schools are slated for opening this school year — the most in any year since the 1996 federal law took effect.

The downside of such burgeoning interest, of course, means that charters are struggling for both funds and facilities to either remain in operation or to accommodate their growing enrollments. While charter schools receive per-pupil funding set by the city government, the lack of consistent funding and the politically obstinate City Hall mean some charters conduct classes in churches instead of bona fide school houses. This happens despite the fact that closed and underutilized school buildings dot the city landscape.

To its credit, the D.C. Board of Education recently allowed two charter schools to share space — that is, to lease space — with a traditional school. But more must be done with the dozens of options that should be available to charter schools. The cost to maintain and secure empty and half-empty school buildings is a waste of resources.

The District has had seven superintendents since Congress first voted on charter schools for the nation’s capital. Students sat on the bottom of the academic rung then, and they’re sitting there now. Besides a few new faces in City Hall and on the school board, nothing much has changed, including per-pupil spending. In the year before Congress passed the 1996 charter-school law, DCPS per-pupil spending was $8,920, among the highest levels in the nation. Today, DCPS per-pupil expenditures stand at $11,269, second-highest.

One of the primary reasons that charter schools were established was to broaden options for D.C. parents and save lives by creating more academic opportunities for their children. It’s clear charter schools are doing precisely that. It’s time for policy-makers to deliver what those schools need and what those students deserve.

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