D.C.’s Charter School Boom

The Washington Post’s Emma Brown describes how the expansion of public charter school enrollment in the District of Columbia is shaping the politics of public education:

The city’s traditional public schools hemorrhaged enrollment for four decades before their student rolls flattened out at about 45,000 in 2009. Charter enrollment, meanwhile, has steadily climbed for the past decade. It jumped 10 percent this year, to more than 34,000, or 43 percent of all students.

Disappointingly, local public officials in D.C. don’t seem to have paid close to attention to the experience of New Orleans, which Brown briefly references as the U.S. city that has gone furthest towards becoming a charter school district.

New Schools for New Orleans, an organization that has advocated for and facilitated the creation of public charters in the New Orleans Recovery School District, has issued a report detailing the various lessons the city has learned as its student population has shifted from traditional public schools to public charters. Between 2005 and 2011, the share of New Orleans public school students enrolled in public charters increased from 5 percent to over 80 percent, a share that continues to climb. Over time, the Recovery School District developed the following principles for its decentralized network of self-governing schools:

1. The Role of Government: Government should regulate and monitor, and rarely directly run, schools. Most significantly, government must ensure equity across the system. 

2. The Expansion of Great Schools: Great schools should be given the opportunity to replicate and serve more students.

3. The Transformation of Failing Schools: Academically unacceptable schools should close or be transformed by new operators.

4. Family Choice: Families should have choices among schools for their children. Different children will thrive in different education environments, and children should not be assigned to schools without consideration of their own family’s desires. 

5. Educator Choice: Educators should have choices in employment, so each educator can work in a school that aligns with his or her educational and organizational philosophies—and so that schools must compete for the best educators.

NSNO is quick to acknowledge the weaknesses of the New Orleans system, and the difficulties the RSD has had in meeting some of its objectives, particularly that of closing failing schools, which is always a wrenching process. Yet the progress the RSD has already made is considerable:

Before Hurricane Katrina, 62 percent of public school students in New Orleans attended a school designated as “failing” by state performance standards. In contrast, in the 2011–12 school year, 13 percent of students attend a failing school based on the 2005 definition of failing schools. In 2011, Louisiana raised its standards. Under this new measure, 40 percent of students attend failing schools. Even with these higher expectations (which we applaud) we expect the percentage of students attending failing schools to be reduced to less than 5 percent by 2016.

New Orleans has also decreased its performance gaps against state averages by more than half—closing the proficiency performance gap by 13 percentage points from 2005 to 2011. In 2011, the city’s schools posted the highest student performance scores to date—maintaining its number 1 ranking in growth across the state. A rigorous evaluation by CREDO (the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University) determined that the percentage of effective open-enrollment charter schools in New Orleans is more than three times the national average.

D.C. would do well to look to New Orleans to see how it might increase the speed with which the highest performing schools expand and the lowest performing schools shrink and eventually close. This churning process is inevitably somewhat disruptive, but as charter districts learn the ropes, this disruption will grow more manageable.

One of the most important things DCPS can do to improve the fortunes of public charters — which isn’t necessarily the objective of local officials — is to allow public charters to use surplus public school facilities. Right now, public charters tend to rely on unconventional, inconveniently-located spaces, yet even so they’ve managed to compete successfully against traditional public schools. With comparable, conveniently-located facilities, they might grow at an even faster clip. 

As public charter enrollment increases, there will be an important shift in the labor market for educators and perhaps even the politics of the city. Right now, unions represent the first line of defense for public school teachers against a centralized local education bureaucracy. Granted, this local education bureaucracy has been heavily shaped by the teachers unions. But the monopsony power of DCPS is not an illusion. With a wide array of public charter providers, however, there will be competition for skilled teachers, in which charter networks will compete to offer more rewarding work environments as well as more attractive compensation. This creates an incentive to treat effective teachers well, which in turn will make it somewhat less likely that effective teachers will leave the profession. As more teachers experience the virtues of this new, more diverse market for their services, at least some will decide that it is preferable to the more centralized arrangements that prevail in traditional districts. And this demonstration effect will, in theory, reverberate in neighboring regions and other large U.S. cities.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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