Eleanor Holmes Norton is at it again. Known for her vehement opposition to school choice, the District of Columbia’s non-voting delegate to Congress has written a bill that could bury her city’s flourishing charter-school movement in the mess of city politics.
Some background: Charter schools are publicly run, but in exchange for being held to higher standards, their principals are freed from some bureaucratic rules. Parents must choose to send their children to charter schools instead of local public schools. The D.C. Public Charter School Board was created by Congress in 1996, and since then its members have been appointed by the mayor in consult with the secretary of Education.
The charter board has a lot of power. At first, D.C.’s traditional school board had a charter office as well, but in 2006, it voted to relinquish its chartering responsibilities to the charter board; a Government Accountability Office report had found that when it came to charter schools, the charter board performed better. Now, the charter board operates semi-independently as an agency of the city government.
But under the guise of the “home-rule” agenda, Norton wants to eliminate the secretary of Education’s role in appointing board members. Should Norton succeed, the composition of the board will depend on the D.C. mayor’s whims.
“The charter board has really set a standard that everyone else tries to emulate,” says Todd Ziebarth of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. “Everyone is wondering: ‘If it ain’t broke, why fix it?’ ”
D.C. has the highest percentage of charter-school students of any district in the nation, with roughly 30 percent, or 20,000, of the District’s public-school students attending. These students outperform their peers in traditional public schools: Fifty-four percent are proficient in math, and 45 percent in reading; the numbers for their peers are 44 and 39 percent respectively. The Center for Education Reform ranks D.C.’s charter-school law among the two strongest in the country. Minnesota has the other.
“Part of the reason the charter board has been so successful is that it has been non-political,” says Tom Nida, the board’s chairman. “No one treats the position as a political springboard for some higher office. Now compare that to the success rate of the former charter office at the D.C. school board — there is no comparison.”
“Why are we politicizing something that’s proven to be effective because it’s been non-political to date?” echoes Ziebarth. “In the future, a hostile mayor and/or city council could essentially stall the work of the board. The two bills [there is also a city-council bill, introduced June 3, to cement the change in appointments] raise serious questions about the future of charter-school oversight in the District.”
Cosponsored by Councilman Tommy Wells of Ward 6, an opponent of charter schools and a former member of the D.C. School Board, the city-council bill would also institute a District-residency requirement for board members. Today, two of the board’s seven current members reside in the D.C. suburbs.
A residency requirement is legitimate, says Kevin Chavous, a former D.C. city councilman — but only if there is a check on the mayor’s power of appointment, such as through a vote by the city council.
“Congresswoman Norton should have spoken with the charter-school community: members of the charter board, the D.C. Public Charter School Association, and school leaders,” he says. “She did not do that. She needs to have a better idea of what they face on a day-to-day basis.”
For Chavous, another concern is the increased scrutiny of the board’s operations by D.C. bureaucrats.
“There’s no secret that Tommy Wells and Vince Gray [chairman of the D.C. city council] are trying to have D.C. public schools oversee the operations of the charter board,” he says. “There’s a fine line between consolidation of education and over-regulation of education.”
He adds, “To fold the charter board into a failed bureaucracy would be catastrophic to the movement and to the gains that we’ve made over the years. This goes beyond a home-rule issue.”
Norton did not return a call seeking comment. Her bill was referred to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on June 19, and then to the Subcommittee on Federal Workforce, Postal Service and the District of Columbia. With a docket that’s filled until September, the committee may not take up the bill until the fall.
– Elise Viebeck, a Collegiate Network intern at National Review, is an editor emerita of the Claremont Independent at Claremont McKenna College.