When Congress passed the 1995 D.C. School Reform Act, establishing charter schools, the law was attacked by the Washington Teachers' Union as a wasteful diversion of tax dollars. The union said the money would be better spent improving existing public schools. But more than a decade later, public charter schools are improving the District's regular DCPS schools by providing them with much-needed competition, just as charters' proponents predicted.
Proof of this was recently supplied by none other than D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson, whose new five-year strategic plan contains "innovations" -- such as increased classroom time -- that are already mainstays of the District's 53 charter schools. In February, Henderson went so far as to seek authorization to open charter schools of her own within DCPS, in an effort to bypass her own unionized system's entrenched mediocrity. Henderson's imitation comes as high praise for her charter school competitors, who now educate 42 percent of all public school students in D.C.
Although both systems receive the same per-student subsidy, DCPS enjoys a significant advantage in capital funding, as its $812 million FY13 budget demonstrates, compared with $542 million for charter schools. Nevertheless, charter school enrollment grew 8 percent this school year, while DCPS enrollment declined 1 percent. One of Henderson's goals is to reverse this ongoing decline by increasing the DCPS high school graduation rate from the current 59 percent to 75 percent over the next five years.
Note that the charter schools have already surpassed that goal. According to the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education, 80 percent of the charter class of 2011 earned a diploma. In many charter schools, the results are even more remarkable. Ninety-one percent of the Washington Mathematics Science and Technology Public Charter High School's predominantly low-income, African-American students graduated -- the same rate as their counterparts in affluent Fairfax County. D.C. charters have not achieved these impressive results by cherry-picking the best students, either. Their student population is 75 percent low-income, 83 percent African-American and 11 percent special education.
"The trajectory for charter schools has been positive in both academic quality as well as enrollment growth," D.C. Public Charter School Board member Don Soifer told The Washington Examiner. Demand for charter schools continues to outstrip supply, and four new charter schools have just been conditionally approved. Meanwhile, Henderson is talking about closing a dozen DCPS schools, given that 40 of them have seen their enrollment dwindle to fewer than 300. DCPS is right to respond to the competition and to try to stem this flight to quality by improving the education it offers.