Washington, D.C., has become a school district where charter schools enroll nearly as many students as neighborhood public schools. As the charter model becomes more and more prevalent in the District, school officials are forced to look at the future path of public schooling in D.C. While some believe the exponential growth of charter schools is a good thing for education quality overall, others fear the expansion of these schools will permanently put traditional public schools in a minority position, where they will lack clout and resources to educate D.C., children, effectively.
Charter School Growth: Numbers Don’t Lie
Charter schools first came to Washington D.C. in 1996. The movement has slowly expanded across the school district to the point where 43 percent of D.C.’s students attend one of these schools today. According to Education Week, that translates to nearly 35,000 students at 100 campuses across the city. Charter school enrollment appears to be on a path to continue this expansion by approximately 10 percent each year.
According to the Washington Post, enrollment in traditional public schools in the District was at just over 45,000 in 2012. The number indicated a one-percent growth in public school enrollment from 2011 to 2012. If that trend continues, it won’t be long before charter school enrollment outpaces enrollment at traditional public schools.
The competition with charter schools has taken its toll on D.C.’s public school system overall. This year, low enrollment numbers are forcing DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson to close another 15 schools in the district. Those closures do not come without a cost – the Washington Post reports that parents, teachers, and activists have now called for district officials to formulate a plan allowing charters and neighborhood schools to co-exist.
This video explains what a charter school is.
The Fight for Neighborhood Schools
A second report from the Washington Post states that community members are concerned about what the shift in the education model will mean to students, neighborhoods, and taxpayers throughout the District. With a recent proposal by a California non-profit group to open eight more charter schools, enrolling 5,000 more students by 2019, the stakes are even higher. The proposal has come on the heels of the closure of 15 schools, which makes the contrast between charters and neighborhood schools even more stark.
The problem is that because Washington, D.C., is the first district to grapple with such charter school growth, the district doesn’t have much in the way of past history to fall back on. As it navigates unchartered territory in the wilderness of public education, other districts nationwide will watch carefully to see how the charter school's influence shakes out regarding academic performance and other factors.
“Certainly there are strengths to such an approach,” Washington D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray told the Washington Post. “But there are also challenges – challenges with which no city has yet grappled.”
While Gray appreciates that the current growth in charter schools has forced both sectors to improve their quality of education, as the balance begins to shift, concern increases as well. Gray explained to the Washington Post that “anything that tips the balance too far in one direction or the other is not good for our children.”
One of the problems with the dual approach could be that the schools are currently operating in isolation, preventing any cohesion within the school system. D.C. Council member David Catania told the Washington Post that lawmakers are responsible for managing the process to ensure all schools in the District are going in the same direction. Catania also said lawmakers could positively influence charter growth if procedures were in place to accelerate the closure of charters not performing to standards and withholding student funding from new charters to discourage as many from opening.
This video looks at the effect of charter schools on public schools.
Finding a Facility
Another issue that is plaguing the D.C. school district is finding facilities for the growing charter schools already in operation in the city. The Washington Examiner reports that while some charters would like to move into empty school buildings, the availability of those buildings is not always clear. One charter school that is planning to move to a public school building is shelling out $23 million to renovate a school that has sat empty since its closure in 2008. Much of the cost will be used to add amenities like a gym and theatre, but a significant portion of the money will go to updating a school that has fallen into disrepair by sitting empty for so many years.
Another D.C. charter school faces similar problems after bidding on another school building that has been sitting empty since 2008. The school had holes in the walls and unusable bathrooms that would cost over $8 million to repair and renovate. Charter school proponents have long complained that the school district takes far too long to release empty buildings for charter school use, which increases the costs of reopening the buildings after so much time has passed. However, Thomas Porter, a real estate director who helps charter schools find buildings, told the Examiner the process is improving.
As charter school growth continues throughout D.C., questions will remain over exactly how charters and neighborhood schools can cohabitate peacefully. As the debate continues in the District, other school districts across the country will be watching with interest to determine whether there will be a legitimate place for neighborhood and charter schools.
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