School Choice & Charters

D.C. Schools Confront the Expanding Presence of Charters

By Kerry A. White — March 03, 1999 6 min read
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In a gleaming, art-adorned building in the heart of the nation’s capital, 65 special-needs students learn the three R’s through painting, sketching, and sculpture.

Across the city, above a waterfront shopping mall, 60 9th graders absorb the political culture that defines their hometown, using its experts, institutions, and museums. And a few miles north, on an elaborate brick campus that was once a convent, 100 at-risk middle schoolers receive academic coaching and social services.

With the number of charter schools at 19 and growing, the District of Columbia school system has suddenly found itself with one of the highest proportions of students in charter schools of any large system in the country. Some 3,600 of the district’s 75,000 students--nearly 5 percent--are in charters this year. And with a charter law that allows 20 new schools into the system each year, the number of charter students could double in the coming school year.

Given the charter school movement’s potential for growth here, the question is not whether Washington’s 146 traditional public schools will respond, but how.

“Public education in D.C. is going through a metamorphosis,” said Shirley Monastra, the executive director of the District of Columbia Public Charter School Resource Center, which helps charter school applicants and educators in existing charters. “What has traditionally been one-stop shopping is changing into a system of schools that provide many options and opportunities.”

Those options include more flexibility for regular public schools.

Indeed, one of the city’s flagship schools, the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, recently withdrew a plan to obtain charter status when district leaders promised it some of the authority over hiring and finances that charter schools enjoy.

The Duke Ellington trade-off is “exactly how the school system should respond,” said Mike Peabody, the executive director of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, a local charter-school-advocacy group.

Worries About Growth

Still, some here worry that charter schools’ rapid growth is too much, too fast.

“I personally believe that competition is healthy for schools, and charter schools introduce that,” Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman said in a recent interview. ''But I have concerns about the rate at which they could grow. Twenty a year--that’s a lot. It could be a problem if we’re not sure these schools are holding students to the same standards as traditional schools.”

The outside pressure on the system from charter schools comes to the school district at a time when Mrs. Ackerman, who was promoted from deputy superintendent to superintendent last May, is pushing for big changes from within.

She has moved forward on several fronts: setting performance standards for school and central-office employees and new academic goals for students; pushing a plan for site-based school management; and establishing a mandatory summer school for students who aren’t working at grade level. Over the past year, most city schools posted gains in reading and math on the Stanford Achievement Test-9th Edition. And Ms. Ackerman has promised to revamp the system’s troubled special education services.

Ms. Ackerman, who functions as both a chief state school officer and local superintendent here, said she worries about maintaining high standards at charter schools. And other officials say the money and talent they drain from the regular schools could impede efforts to improve education for the vast majority of students who remain in the regular system.

Charter schools received nearly $29 million this school year--$12.5 million from the district’s $545 million local schools budget, and $16.3 million from federal sources--according to the district. About 100 staff members, including three administrators, have left the school system for charter schools. Per-pupil funding, which varies in the district according to grade level and other factors, follows a student who leaves a regular school for a charter school.

“There’s a place for charter schools, but if you drain the system of too many resources in a short period of time, there’s less of a chance to fix public schools,” said Westy Byrd, a newly elected member of the school board.

Created by Congress

Congress approved the city’s charter school legislation in 1996. The law, which is considered among the more liberal in the nation, allows two chartering authorities--the elected school board and an appointed Public Charter School Board--to each approve 10 new charter schools per year. The law also permits existing public or private schools to convert to charter status if two-thirds of their staff members and parents agree on the change.

Bruno V. Manno, a senior fellow in education with the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation, a philanthropy that focuses on children’s issues, said charter schools could either be a curse or a blessing. In the best case, he said, school system leaders will come to “accept the charter idea, learn some lessons, ... [and] use them as part of an overall strategy.”

Charter schools, Mr. Manno argued, can serve as an ally of urban schools by helping them meet the often overwhelming volume of student need--accommodating learning-disabled and other special-needs students, for example.

School board member Tonya Vidal Kinlow said that’s how she’d like to see such schools work here. “We should use these schools to offer top-notch programs to students who aren’t being served by traditional schools,” she said. But she, too, worries that the number of charters is growing too fast.

A ‘Godsend’

Catherine C. Martens, the founder and president of the 100-student Options Public Charter School, the district’s first charter, says that with its tiny classes and ample social services, her school provides what the city’s traditional schools do not.

“An enormous percentage of our students have special needs, and to dcps people, we’re a godsend,” Ms. Martens said.

L. Lawrence Riccio, the president and chief executive officer of the School for Arts and Learning, which serves special-needs students, said his school “provides a private-school-quality education” at a cost that’s substantially less than the private schools that the system contracts with to serve many of its special-needs students.

Not everyone in the district believes charter schools offer things that regular public schools can’t. City Council member Kevin P. Chavous said he’d like regular public schools to provide some of the same individual attention and innovation that the charter schools promise.

Ms. Ackerman says that’s exactly what her administration has been doing. “We’re giving traditional schools the same kinds of flexibility that charter schools have,” she said.

Meanwhile, “we have a lot of work to do,” said Irasema Salcido, the founder and principal of the Cesar Chavez Public Charter High School, which opened this year with a public-policy focus.

Ms. Salcido said she and her staff have been surprised at how many of the students lack skills in reading, writing, math, and more. “Throughout their school experience, these kids haven’t been pushed,” she said. “We had to start with changing attitudes about hard work and discipline. ... This school is their last chance.”

Coverage of urban education is underwritten in part by a grant from the George Gund Foundation.

A version of this article appeared in the March 03, 1999 edition of Education Week as D.C. Schools Confront the Expanding Presence of Charters

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