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In D.C., a Tale of Two School Systems

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Tensions between charter schools and traditional public schools are a fact of life nationwide, but few places have seen the debate play out with higher stakes and public glare than Washington D.C.

Marked for decades as one of the country’s most under-performing public school systems, the District of Columbia Public Schools gradually lost half of its students to charter schools.

The charters’ pull on students and parents was highlighted in the 2010 documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman,’” and was a subtext of former DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee’s years-long, nationally watched effort at reforms to the city’s district-run schools.

A decade after the launch of Rhee’s efforts made D.C. schools a national story, some key players in the city’s ongoing education story met at EWA’s “DC: A Tale of Two Schools Systems” panel, to debate whether and how charter schools can co-exist with traditional public schools.

While the panel’s charter proponents and traditional school supporters quibbled on several fronts, a striking part of the discussion was their general agreement that charters and traditional schools had both improved education outcomes for kids in the city.

“I think both the charter and traditional public sectors are strong,” said Natalie Gordon, a DCPS instructional superintendent. ‘We’ve been improving tremendously.”

“There’s a shared commitment to making things work for parents,” said Scott Pearson, of the DC Public Charter School Board.

That collaborative vibe presents a contrast to the acrimony that often defines relationships between the two sectors in other parts of the country.

The Politics of Location

But the panelists still found plenty to disagree on, particularly regarding how and where charter schools should open and how direct the competition between the two school types should be.

Competition between the two sectors may have helped to raise the bar educationally, but it also means educators spend too much time recruiting and marketing, Gordon said. That’s a distraction that ultimately means less focus on the classroom.

“We spend too much time recruiting kids,” she said. “It takes away from our instructional focus.”

She added that middle school students too often leave charters midyear to return to D.C.’s traditional public schools, leaving them with the burden of educating them without the funding.

There were clearly hard feelings around the matter of where charter schools open.

It was moderator Emma Brown, a Washington Post education reporter, who first broached the topic, recalling the school chancellor’s anger upon once learning that a charter school would be opening across the street from a traditional school.

David Grosso, a D.C. city councilman, conceded that deciding where to locate new charters is “a hard conversation” for multiple reasons.

On the one hand, it is difficult for new charter schools to find locations in the pricey and compact city, he said, and even more difficult to locate them in places where they don’t present a direct threat to nearby campuses.

Still, the redundancies clearly bothered Gordon.

“There are only so many kids in this city,” said Gordon. “It’s not logical. It’s going to be a burden on the charter as much as the public school.”

While the public schools complained about how charters select sites, a charter leader raised a different complaint. Donald Hense, founder and chairman of the Friendship Public Charter School in D.C., pointed to the large number of city-owned buildings that sit vacant and could be used by charter schools.

“We want some of those empty buildings and we’ll be happy,” he said.

‘Money and Politics’

Mary Filardo, executive director of the 21st Century School Fund, called the competition mostly “a function of the dollars the city has been so generous with.”

“It’s about money and politics,” she said. “When there’s that much money, you know there’s a lot going on there.”

Filardo added that too much of the debate between charters and traditional schools unfolded between politicians, entrepreneurs and administrators, with parents and community members too often shut out of any opportunity “to be at the table.”

That was a perspective that Pearson rejected, pointing out that parents serve on charters’ boards of directors.

But Filardo’s remarks on money prompted speakers to touch on what is surely a key factor driving Washington’s hopeful story: the relatively large amounts of money the city invests in its schools. The city finances public education at a rate of more than $17,000 per student, one of the highest in the country.

Washington, Brown acknowledged, is “so unique in the amount of money it devotes to schools.”