As a parent, I believe in the original rallying cry for public charter schools in the District of Columbia — “parental choice.” Charters are publicly funded, but run independently of the traditional public school system; they were intended to extend choice to every parent regardless of income because, like the school system, charters are tuition-free public schools. But despite the government’s responsibility to fund the education of all its public school students fairly, the choices and voices of the 45 percent of parents who have selected charters in the District are being disrespected.
You might think that every child who attends public school in the District of Columbia would be treated equally, regardless of which school they attend. District law certainly says so.
The D.C. School Reform Act, which allowed charter schools to open in the District, says that every child at the same grade level or special education need should receive equal city funds, whether enrolled in a public charter or traditional public school. Nonetheless, in our nation’s capital, charters have been consistently funded with fewer city dollars than their peers, despite the letter and spirit of the law.
Recently, the District government filed a second motion to dismiss a lawsuit filed on behalf of all D.C.’s charter schools by the D.C. Association for Chartered Public Schools, Eagle Academy Public Charter School and Washington Latin Public Charter School. The lawsuit seeks no damages for year-upon-year of past underfunding — simply equal funding with local taxpayer dollars going forward, for whatever public school students’ parents choose for their child.
Tragically, successive administrations have illegally underfunded District public charter school students by between $1,600 and $2,600 annually for the past eight years alone. D.C. Public Schools, the city-run school system, has received $770 million over and above what has been made available to charters, despite charters’ enrollment swelling to nearly half of the public school provision in the nation’s capital. Charter students have therefore missed out on nearly $400 million over the last eight years alone.
Just before the government filed its latest motion to dismiss the charter schools’ case, an amicus brief in defense of the charters’ legal action was filed. Signatories included the Black Alliance for Educational Options, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the Center for Education Reform and Friends of Choice in Urban Schools. But beyond the legal arguments, there is the scale of the damage done to children by the District government’s illegal behavior. The many children who benefited from the choice charters created should also be considered.
Some 78 percent of D.C.’s charter students are African-American, compared to 68 percent in D.C. Public Schools. And 12 percent of DCPS students, but 5 percent of charter students, are white. Four in five District charter students are growing up in homes where their household income makes them eligible for federal lunch subsidies — a higher share than their neighbors and siblings enrolled in public schools. An important factor in this is that charters commonly choose to locate in the communities which have been the most underserved educationally, and in other ways.
By providing choice, charters have brought new, higher-quality options for parents and children previously deprived of them. D.C. charter schools have an on-time high-school graduation rate that is 21 percentage points higher than the city-run school system. This enables many more charter students to be accepted to and graduate from college.
District charter students outperform their contemporaries in the traditional system on standardized reading and math tests. Nowhere is this more true than east of the Anacostia River, where poverty, unemployment and crime are highest. In D.C.’s Ward Seven and Ward Eight, District charter students outscore DCPS enrollees by 18 and 26 points, respectively, on citywide tests.
My son is a student at Friendship Public Charter School. Like most parents, when I was making my choice, I wanted the best school that suited his needs, and would prepare him for college. Friendship has three campuses rated Tier 1 — high performing — by the city’s charter board, one of a small group of such schools in the District. Its most established high school has a 92 percent on-time graduation rate, compared to DCPS’ 56 percent average.
I am not a lawyer. But as a father, I do know this: The government must obey its own law and fund charter students equally. Our voices and our choices for the education that is right for our children have been too long ignored by a government that lacks transparency, and hasn’t listened.
• Eric McKinley King is a parent of a public charter school student, and president of Solutions Consulting Group.