- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 7, 2009

D.C. advocates for school reform in all three city education sectors - traditional public schools, public charter schools and private schools - testified before a Senate committee chaired by Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, on Sept. 16 and 30. D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee; Washington Scholarship Fund President and Chief Executive Officer Gregory M. Cork; and Robert Cane, executive director of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, were among the witnesses called. They highlighted accountability and success rates at charter schools, among other statements.

Mr. Durbin signaled conditional but continued support for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.

The Senate Appropriations subcommittee on financial services and general government authorized $12 million last year for a federally funded scholarship program for low-income families to attend private schools in the District. Federal legislation requires that federal funds equal to the cost of the opportunity scholarships go to D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) and D.C. public charter schools. The 1,716 students in the scholarship program last year each received $7,500 in tuition costs.

Mrs. Rhee, who oversees the city-run public schools, testified that she and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty continued to support the three-sector approach to federal funding of D.C. schools. She noted that despite the reform she has introduced to DCPS, she is still unable to look parents in the eye and tell them that their children will be well-served in the city-run schools. Reform is a multiyear process, she said.

The committee also took testimony from Josephine Baker, executive director of the D.C. Public Charter School Board; Patricia Weitzel-O’Neill, superintendent of schools for the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington; and Mary Levy, project director of the Public Education Reform Project. Ms. Levy has researched and written extensively on the subject of D.C. schools and school reform.

Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican, and Sen. Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican, also questioned the school experts.

Testifying on behalf of D.C. public charter schools, Mr. Cane highlighted the superior student achievement and additional school accountability that charter schools offer. He also described charters’ spectacular growth since the reform began.

“Charters have grown in student enrollment from 160 kids on two campuses in 1996 to nearly 26,000 on 98 campuses last year,” Mr. Cane said. “Ninety-six percent [of students] are African-American, and 80 percent come from economically disadvantaged homes.”

Charters schools’ popularity with parents was clear from the fact that 36 percent of all public-school students are enrolled in public charter schools, Mr. Cane said, with thousands of children on waiting lists. Two D.C. charter schools, Capital City Public Charter School - which President Obama visited recently - and Two Rivers Public Charter School, had almost 30 applicants for every available space last year, Mr. Cane said.

“Charters are ahead of the curve when it comes to school reform,” he said.

Charters’ greatest successes have been among the students who are most in need, Mr. Cane told the senators.

“Economically disadvantaged and African-American secondary school students are nearly twice as likely to be proficient in reading and math as their peers in the city-run schools,” he said.

Charters also exceed public school graduation rates, he said.

“Charters’ graduation rate, which is approaching 90 percent, significantly exceeds the national average, which includes wealthy areas a world away from D.C.,” Mr. Cane said.

A key part of D.C. charter schools’ success is the level of accountability to which the District’s Public Charter School Board holds these unique public schools, Mr. Cane said.

The board, which oversees charters, rejects two in three applications to set up a public charter school and has closed one in four schools that have been chartered, all of which were underperforming academically, he said. Charters also did more with less, Mr. Cane said, receiving less per-student funding for school building compared with the public school system.

Mr. Durbin vigorously questioned the Washington Scholarship Fund’s Mr. Cork, asking him to account for all of the children in the opportunity-scholarship program at the Sept. 16 hearing. Mr. Durbin said he was satisfied that “the kids are accounted for.”

“We’ve got to demand the same standards” for voucher schools as for public and public charter schools, Mr. Durbin said. He also said he was insisting on more oversight as a condition for his continued support for the voucher program.

Mark Lerner is a board member at Washington Latin Public Charter School.

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