Greater Greater Education

The DCPS-charter relationship is getting heated in this education "hot spot"

An op ed in the Washington Post on Sunday said the balance between the DCPS and charter sectors resembles a "thoughtful weave of charters and traditional schools." It's not clear many others would agree.


Photo of arguing people from Shutterstock.

Richard Whitmire, the author of a biography of former DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee and a recent book on the Rocketship network of charter schools, dubbed DC an "education hot spot" in his Post opinion piece. He noted the high proportion of top-ranked charter schools in the District and praised both Rhee and current DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson for making DCPS "the fastest-improving urban district" in the nation.

No doubt there are those who would quibble with some of these statements, but at least they're based in fact. Where Whitmire really goes off the mark is in characterizing the current relationship between DCPS and the charter sector as harmonious, and the pattern of DCPS and charter schools as "thoughtful."

Whitmire seems to have somehow overlooked the recent flap about joint planning, which has brought to light tensions that have been lurking under the surface of the generally cordial relationship between the two sectors in recent years.

DCPS and the Deputy Mayor for Education want limits placed on where charters locate and on the number of charters that can be approved. The charter sector is adamantly opposed to that idea, saying it would threaten the very autonomy that has enabled them to thrive.

Recently, irked by the announcement that a new charter will open across the street from a DCPS school with a similar focus and serving the same age group, Henderson compared the situation to "cannibalism." The charter sector's response, although phrased slightly more diplomatically, is that DCPS simply can't compete. Harmony? Hardly.

One thing both sectors would probably agree on is that Whitmire's characterization of the district-charter landscape here as a "thoughtful weave" is way off base. Both sides see waste and duplication. Some DCPS schools, even some that were recently built or renovated at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, stand half-empty.

Meanwhile, charters scramble for space, often spending millions to retrofit buildings that were not designed for school use, while DCPS hoards its mothballed vacant buildings in hopes it will be able to use them again.

Thoughtfulness implies planning, and that's one thing we don't have. At least, not in any truly thoughtful sense. That is, plans can be made for DCPS, as in the recent proposals for new boundaries and feeder patterns. But charter schools can then completely upend them.

Even one member of the PCSB had to take issue with what she called Whitmire's "overly rosy picture of the potential for charter-DCPS collaboration."

DC isn't different

One of the most puzzling things Whitmire says is that the "DC model is different" from that in other cities, where "it's a matter of market share," and the traditional public schools "view every child in a charter as a revenue loss." He follows that by explaining that DC has had a "liberal charter school law and generous per-student payments that allowed for quick growth."

But DC isn't different from those other cities. When a child leaves DCPS for a charter, she takes that generous per-student payment with her, making it more difficult for DCPS to sustain programming for those who are left. And the charter sector's "quick growth" has only made the problem worse, from DCPS's point of view.

DC charters now serve 44% of the "market," if that's how you want to characterize the student population. And that has led DCPS to close almost 40 schools over the past 6 years.

What's remarkable is that, despite this competition, DCPS and the charter sector have managed to work as cooperatively as they have. This year the common school lottery was a huge step towards rationality in school admissions, even though some charters chose not to participate. And Henderson has shown her willingness to enter into partnerships with charter organizations that want to collaborate with DCPS to improve outcomes for DC's most disadvantaged kids.

But given the recent heated rhetoric, it's not clear how long that kind of cooperation will continue. I certainly hope that both sides find a way to resolve their differences. But ignoring their existence, as Whitmire does, won't make them disappear.

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Natalie Wexler is a board member at DC Scholars Public Charter School and a volunteer tutor in a DC Public School. She also serves on the board of The Writing Revolution, an organization that brings the teaching of analytical writing to underserved schools. She has been a lawyer, a historian, and a journalist, and is the author of three novels. 

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DC charters got their start through Congressionally granted charter schools. So, yes, DC is different. Every other locality had to get approval from locally ELECTED leaders to allow the competitor to come in and weaken public support for public school system.

by DC is different on Jul 15, 2014 4:39 pm • linkreport

This is a very fine column. I applaud Ms Wexler's balance and objectivity, which is a sharp contrast to Mr. Whitmire's piece. I read Whitmire's piece on Sunday and was amazed that the Post had given such prominence to what was pretty much an infomercial for Rocketship.

The Post should print Wexler's column as well.

by Willow on Jul 15, 2014 5:20 pm • linkreport

May I rephrase the comment by DC is different? Other localities have to get approval from elected leaders, whose support is often dependent on the teachers' uniona, to allow competitors to come in and provide a better education for the urban kids whose education has been deficient for so long.

Of course, if local officials keep preventing competition from mostly better charter schools, we might see more judges get involved, like the one in Los Angeles who ruled something along the lines that tenure for the most underperfoming teachers violated the civil rights of the children who were being mis-educated.

We have to recognize that in urban areas, teachers' unions have a great deal of political muscle, so even though I am not a Republican, I am glad Congress made it possible for DC Charters to thrive.

by John on Jul 15, 2014 8:09 pm • linkreport

I read your columns for humor. You are among the new intellectuals who don't have a clue about anything other than what you want or think others like you want. There was no cooperation between DCPS and charters on enrollment. It was a scam run on charter schools, while DCPS maintained its own enrollment website that allowed parents to enroll directly in any DCPS school they chose. Since black parents who have 85% of the children in all DC public schools have long recognized that DCPS did not want them, they decided to enroll in charter schools. Now with the help of OSSE, the MyschoolsDC web site was nothing be a way to make it difficult for parents to get in the charter school of their choice.

The boundary proposal if put into practice will immediately face a lawsuit, because it simply re-segregates schools in the city, but you were pushing that in one of your previous columns. It is simply limited the schools available to black children to the ragged buildings east of the river.

by topryder1 on Jul 16, 2014 10:30 am • linkreport

Choice...was the operative motive. Thus a better Walmart is to make a better K-Mart but what happens in the long run both are selling the same crap but a different day.

by Exaggerating aren't we on Jul 21, 2014 10:38 am • linkreport

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