The educational marketplace

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Fascinating article in yesterday's Washington Post by Lori Montgomery and my longtime friend Jay Mathews, headlined "The Future of D.C. Public Schools: Traditional or Charter Education?" Charter schools are public schools that are run autonomously by private groups, free from the bureaucratic rules and procedures that govern public schools. As Montgomery and Mathews point out, limited test results suggest that D.C. charter schools perform better than public schools but well below national averages. Over the past decade 12 charter schools have been closed for various reasons; two more are scheduled to open in the coming school year. Charter school students are chosen by lottery from applicants, of whom there apparently are always more than the places to be filled; many public schools, in contrast, attract fewer kids than they can hold.

The charter school legislation was passed by the Republican Congress in 1996 and signed by Bill Clinton; teacher unions opposed it and were unhappy that Sen. Joe Lieberman voted for it. The condition of D.C. public schools, despite some notable exceptions, has mostly been abysmal for many years; charter school advocates argued that they would give the mostly black poor children of D.C. a chance at the decent education that parents of the mostly white children of the suburbs take for granted. And it was argued that as "traditional" public schools faced competition they would improve.

Parents seem to have voted for charter schools. The front-page graphic tells the story vividly; charter schools accounted for 0.2 percent of D.C. public school enrollment in 1996-97 and for 24 percent in 2005-06.

The numbers could not be clearer: Charter schools are the winners in the educational marketplace. Enrollment in traditional schools is down from 77,000 to 55,000 (that's a 29 percent decrease) and enrollment in charter schools is up from 160 to 17,400 in charter (I won't bother to calculate the percentage).

Charter schools seem to be doing something right. So what is the position of the school superintendent? There shouldn't be any more of them.

This month, D.C. School Superintendent Clifford B. Janey called for a moratorium on new charters, saying they threaten the traditional system while failing to offer a high-quality alternative. The chairman of the city's independent chartering authority rejected the idea, but Janey plans to press his point with city officials, educators, and other civic leaders.

"We should stop growing just for the sake of growing," Janey said. "Charter schools were never conceived to replace a school district. They were conceived to add quality."

And a group of parents filed a lawsuit challenging charter schools.

Tired of seeing money siphoned from neighborhood schools into the uncertain hands of charter operators, a group of public school parents filed a lawsuit in 2004, accusing city and federal officials of "creating a two-track system" of education that favors charters and impoverishes children who remain in the D.C. school system. The lawsuit accused the city of promoting the Two Rivers Public Charter School east of Capitol Hill so white and middle-class parents could escape neighborhood schools that are "too black."

But Two Rivers' student body is about half black and only one-third white.

Other opponents point to the specter of charter schools siphoning off middle-class children.

"What will be difficult is if the next wave of charters ends up attracting essentially middle-class families, the people who bought into the District five years ago [and] want to stay in the city but can't afford private schools," said Mary Filardo, executive director of the 21st Century School Fund. "If that's the next wave of growth, then DCPS will lose the middle class. And when you lose the middle class from this universal public institution, you lose the quality control."

What kind of fantasy world is she living in? "DCPS will lose the middle class": DCPS lost almost all of the middle class long ago. Yes, I know a few professional parents who have sent their kids to D.C. public schools, some all the way through high school, with what was in their view satisfactory results. But they're a small, small minority: More than half the white kids in the District go to private schools, and many parents move to the suburbs specifically so that their kids can go to public schools in other districts.

Filardo's comment does, however, reflect the fact that charter school enrollment is now highest in heavily black low-income neighborhoods in the District. The Post's map, tells the story clearly. The graphic also shows that a higher percentage of charter school students are eligible for free school lunches (71 percent) than public school students (61 percent). The racial composition of charter schools (84 percent black, 13 percent Hispanic, 2 percent white) is almost identical to that of public schools (83 percent black, 10 percent Hispanic, 5 percent white). Montgomery and Mathews note the success of the first KIPP charter school in D.C.; I've visited that school and am a tremendous admirer of the KIPP program.

One middle school, the KIPP DC: KEY Academy in Southeast, has the highest test scores of any middle school in the city and has recorded some of the largest gains in achievement by low-income students in the nation.

Read that carefully: "the highest test scores of any middle school in the city" and "some of the largest gains in achievement by low-income students in the nation." And these are kids mostly from Anacostia, from some of the lowest-income, highest-crime, most-disorganized parts of the city.

In an article that is fair and balanced, Montgomery and Mathews point out that not all charter schools have turned out well. Just after mentioning KIPP Key Academy, they write,

But other charters have been plagued by fraud and mismanagement. For example, the New School for Enterprise and Development in Northeast had its charter revoked in the spring as charter officials and D.C. auditors raised questions about board member Charles E. Tate.

Tate, who also served as school president, was receiving an annual salary of $100,000 and had a contract that required the board to pay him $500,500 for work he had done before the school's 2000 opening. In addition to alleging financial improprieties, teachers and other staff members said the school's principal tried to alter transcripts to inflate academic performance. The school closed in June, shortly after it was raided by federal agents.

But that illustrates how the educational marketplace works.

In the past 10 years, 12 D.C. charter schools have closed. Charter advocates say that is not a sign of failure but a willingness to end experiments that aren't working, a stark contrast to the bureaucratic barriers that make it difficult to address problems in traditional urban schools.

"We bury our dead," said Malcolm Peabody, founder of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, a D.C. charter advocacy group.

Saying that some charter schools are bad does not prove that the idea of having charter schools is bad. Some restaurants are bad, but they tend to go out of business--or to be forced out of business by public--health authorities.

The advocates of the traditional public school model had many decades in which to prove that the D.C. public schools could achieve good results. They almost entirely failed. Charter school advocates have had one decade in the District to prove that charter schools could produce good results, and they have mostly succeeded. The traditional public school model was bureaucratic, with centralized command and (purported) control, highly regulated with detailed union contracts. The charter school model relies on markets, with parental choice and with the teachers and principals held accountable. With help from Lori Montgomery and Jay Mathews, we can see which one works best.