D.C. charter growth doesn’t need a “momentary pause”

Hurrah for Scott Pearson, the executive director of the D.C. Charter School Board, for pointing out the guile of several Washington, D.C., leaders who want to “manage” the accelerating charter school growth in the city under the guise of collaboration. Joint efforts between city, district, and charter leaders are good if they lead to more and better options for all students, but some key city officials sound more like they’re trying to put a brake on the charter momentum.

When the latest figures from D.C. showed that the number of charter school students increased by 10 percent to 34,673 students, it brought the charter school market share of public education in the city to 43 percent. This led David A. Catania, the chairman of the D.C. Council’s new education committee, to tell the Washington Post on Sunday that there ought to be a way to help charter schools and district schools learn to co-exist, even if that means “a momentary pause” on charter growth. Similarly, Mayor Vincent C. Gray wants his education cabinet to develop a coordinated “road map for public education” in the city.

Pearson was right to challenge statements like these, telling Post reporter Emma Brown, “I’m not interested in joint planning as a cover to put some sort of moratorium on charters.”

Indeed, any hint that charter growth should slow or “pause” in the spirit of collaboration ignores a fundamental reality: D.C. charters are building enough leverage to lead any conversation on collaboration and to quash efforts that would limit options available to families outside the school district.

Pearson and his team have done their part to control for quality in the charter sector by getting tougher on poorly performing schools and authorizing only those charters with the potential to serve children well (an effort borne in a commitment from Rocketship Education to open eight charters in D.C. by 2019). And that focus on quality is coinciding with a clear trend toward the reality that D.C. charters will soon be educating a majority of the city’s students.

If city officials are anxious that they don’t yet know what it would mean for families and for neighborhoods when charters become the choice for most students, the answer isn’t to contain the charter sector—rather, they ought to enhance the strengths and options within the district. To be sure, not all the news for D.C. Public Schools is bad; after years of hemorrhaging students, the school district gained in enrollment by 1 percent this year. So, arguably, district-led reforms have made some progress and enticed some families to the school system.  

Collaboration between D.C. charters and the school district may be good for the city when it has as its goal the maximum number of high-performing seats for low-achieving students. Containment is a bad way to achieve that goal.

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