Why Charters are Stronger in DC Study: Freedom to Be Better

David Osborne names four key governance differences between chartering and traditional district systems in his recent reportA Tale of Two Systems: Education Reform in Washington D.C. These differences, he says, are what make DC charter schools stronger than district schools.

In my view, these findings go well beyond Washington DC. These are the fundamental differences between chartering and district schools that go back to the origins of chartering.

Tuesday’s blogpost described two differences: Freedom to Employ Staff, and Greater Diversity of Choices. Here are two more differences that I believe provide charter schools “The Freedom to be Better.”

School-level Autonomy. Chartering pioneers invented chartering because children learn differently and flourish in different environments. To teach them differently, says Osborne, schools need autonomy. In district schools, teachers only have autonomy over their classroom. It is too easy to say “We could do this if only the central office would let us.”

The District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) principals cannot hire or control their budgets as freely as charter leaders. DCPS schools must use services provided by central office, such as professional development. Charter schools can purchase services when and where they get the best value. And the union contract in DCPS schools limits the ability of principals to lengthen their school day or request other adjustments from their teachers.

Entrepreneurial Drive. I see this in many of the charter schools I visit. It is a key cultural difference between charter public and district public school leaders. Educating poor children in urban centers is so challenging, it often requires leaders to redesign traditional education. Those who open charters often have bold visions and are driven by singular commitment to mission that rises above all else. Opening a charter school is extremely difficult . . . you must be committed to survive the process!

When visions of charter school leaders succeed, they often create additional schools. In DC, the charter school sector creates new schools constantly—four to five per year for the past five years.

Mr. Osborne’s conclusion says it best:

“DCPS leaders are doing excellent work, and their schools are definitely improving, but their model is outdated. (emphasis added) . . . They are like race car drivers piloting a 1930 Model T, when their competitors drive a 21st century model. The Model T still works for most middle-class students—particularly after the district upgraded its engine and transmission in recent years.  But for those with greater needs—particularly poor, minority kids—schools need innovative designs and extraordinary commitment from their staffs.”

Today’s students, parents, and teachers deserve a 21st century education model. It is long overdue.