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Opinion: Columnists

Looking at charter schools, apples to apples

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Opinion,David Freddoso,Columnists,Campaign 2012

In Washington, D.C.'s Ward 3, the average family income is $260,000 per year. A middling home there sells for about $900,000. As of 2010, fewer than 500 people out of 77,000 were on welfare or food stamps.

The District's culture and history -- past and present -- are black, but Ward 3 is about as white as Utah. And it's about as black as Utah, too.

I do not live in Ward 3. I have nothing against the place, but we can probably agree that it's not representative of the District. Nor are its public schools.

So it's a bit misleading, for example, to say that 46 percent of DCPS students meet or exceed proficiency standards in math. A more accurate way of putting it is that in Ward 3 public schools, math proficiency is 77 percent, and it's just 41 percent in the other seven wards. The story is the same with reading: 78 percent DCPS proficiency in Ward 3, 38 percent in the rest of the city, based on my calculations from the school profile information on the DCPS website.

This should shed a bit of light on the charter school craze that has taken hold among parents outside of Ward 3 -- there are no public charter schools within Ward 3. Charters, which now teach 43 percent of all public school students in the District, perform at a somewhat better rate than the DCPS system. But when you compare the charters to the DCPS schools they're actually competing with -- the ones outside of Ward 3 -- the gap becomes more dramatic: The proficiency rate among charter students last year was about 34 percent higher in math and 30 percent higher in reading. The four-year graduation rate for all charter high schools is 77 percent, which is actually four points better than Wilson, the DCPS high school in Ward 3, and more than 20 points better than DCPS overall.

In an age when everyone is concerned about racial gaps in learning, it's also important to note that charters are getting these results while serving a more heavily black student population than DCPS, and with a greater share of low-income students who are eligible for free lunches.

This is why parents in most of D.C. are overwhelmingly choosing charter schools and leaving DCPS withering on the vine. When Chancellor Kaya Henderson announced the closure of 20 DCPS schools (all outside of Ward 3) last week due to under-enrollment, it was not for a lack of children in the District. There are actually more children enrolled in D.C. public schools today (charters and DCPS combined) than there were in 2002.

Not all charters are created equal. Some of them outperform the schools in Ward 3. Some of them -- about 10 of the 57 in town -- appear to be completely failing. But one reason the charter system works, and will continue to improve, is that its independent board can (and does) shut down worst laggards each year and replace them with new and better charter schools. Contrast that with DCPS, where the teachers' unions would rather spend $1 million defeating a sitting mayor at the ballot box (as they did in 2010) than go along quietly when a few underperforming teachers are fired.

DCPS has tried to improve its schools, and its current chancellor seems committed to the effort. Unfortunately, parents can't put their kids into suspended animation until she succeeds. They keep getting older, and they need a school that works now, not 10 years from now.

Whomever you want to blame -- the union, the educational bureaucracy, the prevailing teaching philosophies -- something isn't working in DCPS schools in most of our city's wards. One can forgive the parents in those parts of town for not hanging around until somebody figures out exactly what it is.

David Freddoso (dfreddoso@washingtonexaminer.com) is the editorial page editor for The Washington Examiner. Follow him on Twitter at @freddoso.

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David Freddoso

Contributing Editor
The Washington Examiner