A Tale of Two Systems: Education Reform in Washington D.C.

When David Osborne and the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI) release a study on education reform, it is not just another study. It creates impact. Osborne, the author of Reinventing Government, is now Director of PPI’s project on Reinventing America’s Schools. Both of them played key pioneering roles in the national rise of charters in the early 1990s, as documented in my book, Zero Chance of Passage.

Last week PPI released A Tale of Two Systems: Education Reform in Washington D.C. Don’t assume their findings are limited to a single jurisdiction. These findings, comparing a charter public system with a district public system operating side by side, will ring around the country.

The findings? As reported in the Washington Post, D. C. Public Schools are not equipped to improve their lowest-performing schools and should have ability to convert them to charter public schools. “For struggling schools in poor neighborhoods, no strategy has been more effective,” reports Osborne.

Here’s the context. Today, 44% of public school students in Washington D.C. attend public charter schools. That number is expected to reach 50%+ by the end of the decade. These schools are authorized by the District of Columbia Public Charter School Board, which Congress legislated into existence in 1996. It is considered one of the best authorizers in the nation. 62 independent nonprofit organizations operate 115 schools.

The remainder of D.C. students attend District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS). DCPS uses a “unified governance model” that emerged more than a century ago, in which the district operates all but one of its 113 schools and employs all their staff, with central control and most policies applied equally to most schools. Since 2007, when Michelle Rhee became chancellor, DCPS leaders have pursued the most aggressive reform effort of any unified urban district in America.

Current DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson has long said she wants to use charters as a tool to turn around low-performing schools. She has been resisted by local politics. I’m all for chartering as a tool to build schools new or redesign and improve existing schools. But I insert a word of caution here:  chartering was always meant to be an opportunity for public school choice, not a “punishment” for low-performing schools. Chartering works when teachers and parents are committed to making it work.  I suspect many teachers and parents in DCPS have that commitment—and if so—they shouldn’t be held back.

Why? The bottom-line conclusion of this important study is that charters are outperforming DCPS schools. Find out more Thursday.