Comparing Two Systems: District Centralized Model and Chartering

The findings of last week’s report released by Progressive Policy Institute (PPI), A Tale of Two Systems: Education Reform in Washington D.C.will resonate far beyond D.C. The report compared the results of two systems: the charter public school system serving 44% of D.C.’s public school students, and the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) system.

Said author David Osborne, “When all is said and done—when all test scores have been compared, along with attendance, graduation, rates, college enrollment, parental demand for each type of school, and independent studies—charters are outperforming DCPS schools.”

Under both models, student performance is improving. Osborne acknowledges that demographics make comparisons tricky, but they provide insight. These demographics are particularly interesting, given some of the common myths of charter schools.

Here are a few demographics. DCPS students are not as poor; 75% qualify for free or reduced lunch, compared to 82% in charter schools. DCPS has more white students: 12% compared to charters’ 5%. And DCPS schools get $7,000 to $9,000 more per student each year than charters—particularly for their buildings and pensions.

On the other hand, all charter families make an active choice of schools while only about half of DCPS families do. This may mean that charter students are more motivated. Osborne says that most experts agree that DCPS has more students “in crisis”—homeless, coming out of jail, former dropouts, etc., because families in crisis don’t usually make the effort to apply for charters. And many charters don’t accept students midway through the school year, while most DCPS schools do. So charters tend to serve a more stable group of students.

To balance these realities, Osborne relies on two independent studies that attempt to compensate for student demographics, including the CREDO study at Stanford University. CREDO found that between 2007-2008 and 2010-2011, D. C. charter students gained an average of 72 more days of learning per year in reading than district school students and 101 more days in math—more than half an academic year.

Demographic factors aside, the report argues that the governance model is the most important difference in the larger gains for charter public schools. In a Washington Post interview, Osborne predicted that in 30-50 years, most urban districts will have mostly charter schools or other types of schools that are given more autonomy and expected to perform or be closed. “The magic is not in the word ‘charter,’ it’s in that arms-length relationship with the system,” he said.

What are the four key differences in system governance that drive these results, according to Osborne?  Check out next week’s blogposts.