DC Mayoral Candidates Debate Future of Charter Schools

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As the election comes closer, voters in Washington, DC are turning their attention to charter schools and whether or not to continue funding them. At last week’s public forum on education, mayoral candidates tackled the hotly-debated issue.

In 1996, the district hosted 147,000 students in 196 schools.  Since then, the numbers have drastically changed to 86,000 students in 213 neighborhood and charter schools.  And more charter schools are continuing to open.

Charter schools currently account for 44% of the public school enrollment and occupy the same amount of buildings.  The next mayor will need to control this hybrid system that has been growing for years.  However, there are currently few restrictions concerning the number of schools open, where they open, or what kind of schools they are, angering parents and officials who worry about creating duplicate spending and programs.  Others are concerned that the charter schools will take over neighborhoods and negatively affect public schools.

While all three candidates agree there is need for change to this system, they all expressed a different view on the details surrounding the change.

Both D.C. Council members Muriel E. Bowser (D-Ward 4) and David A. Catania (I-At Large) discussed the importance of cooperation among charter schools and public schools.  However, Independent candidate Carol Schwartz delved deeper into the subject, stating that she would be open to pursuing an amendment to the federal Education Reform Act if necessary in order to gain the cooperation needed.

Catania discussed the need to hold discussions with charter and public schools “from a place of trust.”  He also wants to push for updates in the area’s special education program.

“I don’t believe in putting an artificial hold on charters while [D.C. Public Schools] struggles to improve itself,” Catania said. “We need to put DCPS on equal footing, and DCPS needs to compete.”

Others believe charter schools have been underfunded for years,and that the government needs to step up their support.  According to a commentary by Nina Rees in The Washington Times, charter schools in the area receive $1,600 to $2,600 less per student than public schools, meaning that over the past 8 years, students of charter schools have received over $770 million less in funding.

Despite the lack of funding, charter school students are performing well.  On average, charter school graduation rates are 21% higher than they are in public schools.

In an attempt to show how DC charter schools are performing, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools recently released a report showing that charter schools in DC rank first in the nation.

The report focused on charter schools in 25 states as well as DC, including those enrolling at least 1% of public schools students in charter schools.

DC scored 104 out of a possible 116 points for its innovations, such as extended day or year schedules, as well as offering higher education courses.

The forum was organized by a coalition of DC education activists who signed a list of six principles they believe will put the city closer to its goal of creating quality, traditional educational opportunities in every neighborhood.  The statement has been signed by over 60 DC residents so far, including supporters “of each of the major candidates for Mayor,” according to a press release from the group.

The principles include a a view that the growth of charter schools is hurting the efforts to strengthen the public school system.  The group would like to see the government “require coordinated planning” between DCPS and the Public Charter School Board to “build a core system of stable DCPS neighborhood schools with a complementary set of alternative options.”

Other principles include improvements on the transparency of budgets for both public schools and charter schools, as well as using measures other than standardized testing to determine student growth.