Time For a New Non-District Charter Authorizer in D.C.

By 04/01/2015 0 Comments

D.C.’s charter school sector stands as a shining example of what urban chartering can accomplish for kids in need.

It has outstanding results and serves a student population that mirrors the District’s. Just as importantly, it refutes the simplistic narrative that a New Orleans-style system is only possible through a natural disaster. The D.C. charter sector has grown methodically for almost two decades, now serving nearly half the city’s public school students.

It is demonstrating that the district can be replaced in a gradual, deliberate fashion.

It could offer America’s cities an invaluable new example of an all-charter approach. NOLA’s pioneering Recovery School District-led system is hugely promising, but D.C.’s Public Charter School Board (PCSB)-led system could potentially show us even better strategies.

Unfortunately—almost unbelievably—that won’t come to pass should PCSB’s current leadership have its way.

In a Washington Post op-ed and Education Next article, the board’s executive director and chair explain that they don’t want high-quality charters to become the system or even to predominate. They want “balance” with the district.

Their justification reflects an unwarranted deference to the status quo, a surprising dearth of vision in tackling emergent challenges, and a lack of appreciation for the half-century failure of America’s urban districts.

They say DCPS is “strong and successful.” But according to 2013 NAEP TUDA, it still has the lowest eighth-grade reading scores of every participating city.

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They say DCPS is progressing. It is. But despite mayoral control, a reform-friendly union contract, a leading educator evaluation system, and amazing talent in schools and the central office, charter kids acquire about one hundred more days of learning annually. As Neerav Kingsland wrote, “We have witnessed what the best of district reform can give us. And…charters can give us better.”

They point to DCPS’s enrollment growth as evidence of the district’s success. But the city’s population started growing two years before Michelle Rhee even arrived in D.C.

They see a “virtuous cycle” of district improvement. But after fifty years of effort, the besturban districts—even those with dedicated, top-notch people like DCPS—are still appallingly low-performing and are making negligible gains.

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Click to enlarge

They note DCPS is under mayoral control. But as New York shows, with one unfortunate election, a decade of reform can be undermined.

They say DCPS has had consecutive excellent leaders. It has. I admire Rhee’s vision and force of will, and I revere Kaya Henderson. But reform-minded superintendents Klein, Brizard, Fuller, Bersin, and countless others across the nation were followed by leaders who backslid fast.

They say an all-charter city would require all charters to backfill and serve as neighborhood schools. Untrue: Backfilling and residential assignments could be limited to a subset of schools.

They worry that an expansive choice environment would “den(y) communities true neighborhood schools.” But from coast to coast, mile-long voucher and charter waitlists and common enrollment-system results demonstrate that low-income families aren’t wed to geographically assigned schools.

They say creeping regulation threatens charter autonomy. It does. But if school-level flexibility is essential, we should stoutly defend it for all schools—whether charters educate 10, 50, or 100 percent of students. In fact, if chartering were the dominant system, it would have more leverage in these debates, not less.

Though I’m thoroughly disappointed by PCSB’s position, the board deserves credit for helping produce a terrific charter sector. But its new vision should not become the city’s vision. Too many kids are still assigned to too many persistently underperforming district-run schools. For too long, too many vaunted district reform efforts have produced too little. And D.C.’s charter sector has too much potential.

PCSB can’t and shouldn’t be forced to have greater aspirations. Fortunately, there’s another option.

Under current law, the city can create a second non-district authorizer. It should do exactly that.

This new chartering entity will hopefully see opportunity where PCSB sees challenges worth avoiding. It can find new answers for school assignments, autonomy, enrollment, backfilling, accountability, and more.

Sadly, PCSB’s position has closed an exhilarating chapter of reform. But D.C. can start writing a new one. It can create a great new non-district authorizer, and maybe even a cross-sector chancellor or a Hill-Jochim board to help organize the system. I’d be happy to contribute to any of these conversations in whatever way the city deems best.

But we should all be unwilling to contribute to the pausing of D.C. chartering—among the most encouraging urban K–12 reforms of the last several decades—because PCSB’s leadership is comfortable with things as they are.

- Andy Smarick

* Andy’s Bellwether colleague, Sara Mead, is a member of the PCSB. These views are his. Sara Mead has responded here.

This post originally appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

The Gender Gap in Reading

By 03/30/2015 1 Comment

The gender gap is large, worldwide, and persistent through the K-12 years. What should be done about it? Maybe nothing.

The Death of the Think Tank, R.I.P.

By 03/30/2015 1 Comment

Think tanks have chosen to focus almost exclusively on advocacy efforts, not realizing that effective advocacy requires generating new, high-quality information.

The Complications of Educational Returns in Rural America

By 03/30/2015 0 Comments

Idaho finds itself in a chicken-egg situation. Improve educational attainment without improved employment opportunities inside Idaho and the state might risk investing in a strategy that merely exports talented young Idahoans.

Behind the Headline: Do Snow Days Hurt Student Progress? A Harvard Professor Says No.

By 03/27/2015 0 Comments

In the Washington Post, Emma Brown describes the findings of a new study by Joshua Goodman on the impact of snow days on student achievement.

Not Meeting Standards: A Warning Light, Not A Death Sentence

Here’s what the Common Core is designed to communicate: If your children are meeting the standards, it means they are believed to be on track for college and career readiness by the end of high school

New Systems of Schools and Common Enrollment

By 03/25/2015 0 Comments

If cities simply add more choice schools in the absence of changes to the enrollment process, parents can struggle to find information on schools, be forced to fill out widely varying school applications, and then receive a staggered barrage of acceptance and rejection notices.

Behind the Headline: Charter-School Head Says City’s Transfer Kids Can’t Keep Up

By 03/25/2015 1 Comment

When seats open up in charter schools mid-year, should those spots be filled by students on the waiting list, or should they be allowed to remain empty?

Behind the Headline: Has Brookings Lost Its Mind?

By 03/24/2015 0 Comments

Chester E. Finn, Jr. wonders how it is possible that Brookings is allowing Russ Whitehurst to leave his position as the head of the Brown Center on Education Policy

Innovation, Technology, and Rural Schools

By 03/24/2015 1 Comment

Rural superintendent don’t consider teacher recruitment and retention among their biggest challenges…and mixing rural schooling and technology is more complicated than you might think.

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