Today marks the 15th anniversary of the D.C. School Reform Act’s passage. This gives public funding to charter schools and a chance at a good education to thousands of children otherwise doomed to attending notoriously poor D.C. public schools (DCPS).
When the reform act passed in 1996, one out of two high-school students dropped out before graduation. Conventional wisdom held that the District’s kids, mostly hailing from bad parts of town, were just too poor and stupid to do any better. Today, charter schools in the worst neighborhoods - drawing from the same population as nearby public schools - put that soft bigotry to shame as they consistently outperform their DCPS counterparts, despite having fewer institutional resources.
Consider Thurgood Marshall Academy in Anacostia, which includes large numbers of students from the neighborhood. Ninety-six percent of its students graduate, all of whom go on to college. Ballou High School down the street, full of kids who didn’t win the lottery to attend Thurgood, has a graduation rate of less than 50 percent.
Despite their success, charter schools are treated by officials as the mutts of the school system. While benefiting from public funds, they are responsible for securing their own facilities and receive roughly half the building funding per child as D.C. public schools. The act guaranteed charter schools the right of first refusal to buy the numerous empty school buildings which dot the District, but city hall routinely sells these facilities to developers on the sly. Ignoring that part of the School Reform Act is an educational death sentence for thousands of District children on charter-school waiting lists.
D.C. charter schools have amassed a 15-year record of success - which includes closing down institutions that did not meet expectations. Recognizing what isn’t working and adjusting are hallmarks of a performance-based approach to education that makes school choice so important. Allowing parents to create and pursue better choices for their children’s education should be expanded in Washington and replicated in school systems across the country.
The success of charter schools tends to be measured in terms of rising test scores, higher graduation rates and fewer instances of violence. However, the best measure of success is the number of children whose lives have been irrevocably changed for the better because their parents were given the choice.