TOPICS > Education

D.C. Weighs Record of Charter Schools

June 11, 2007 at 6:25 PM EDT
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TEACHER: OK, sixth graders, I know that you’ve been patient in the hallway…

KWAME HOLMAN: This isn’t an ordinary inner-city public school. D.C. Prep is a charter school, part of a national movement in which private citizens, frustrated by low student achievement in traditional public schools, created an alternative.

TEACHER: Now, we are trying to figure out the relationship between the diameter and the circumference.

KWAME HOLMAN: Public charters have flexibility to operate independently of school districts. Some are run by for-profit companies, and all charters qualify for local and federal education funding.

Since their birth about 15 years ago, charters have grown to nearly 4,000 schools nationwide, with about a million students, overall a tiny segment of all public education, but one that has generated heated debate in some parts of the country.

In Washington, D.C., charter schools are springing up everywhere, with some 25 percent of the city’s 55,000 publicly enrolled students attending charter schools this year. Meanwhile, the city’s long-troubled traditional school system is on the verge of being taken over by Washington’s mayor, who hopes to turn around crumbling facilities, failing students, and poor financial management.

Founder Emily Lawson says she set up a non-profit group to bring D.C. Prep to life in 2003 because of her concern about the state of public education in the city.

EMILY LAWSON, Executive Director, D.C. Prep: I grew up in Washington, D.C. I went to a private school here. And I felt like it was completely wrong that I had a great education handed to me and, 15 minutes away, kids had an awful education. And it was only through accident of where we were born.

KWAME HOLMAN: So Lawson found and renovated this former food warehouse, hired teachers and staff, and opened the middle school’s doors, offering mostly lower-income parents the promise of a better education for their children.

But recent national test scores are raising questions about whether charters schools are delivering a better education than regular public schools. In the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP tests, fourth-grade students in traditional schools scored slightly higher in math and reading than charter students, though large percentages of both groups scored below basic proficiency.

Clifford Janey is superintendent of Washington’s traditional public schools.

Will these test scores come up and send a reality check for some of those people who said, you know, chartering is better and will put regular public schools out of business?

CLIFFORD JANEY, Superintendent, D.C. Public Schools: Unequivocally, yes. I think educators and supporters of leaders in public education through charters realize how challenging the work is in urban districts. Sometimes one does not realize how difficult it is to create and sustain a new school, given those challenges.

Evaluating charter school benefits

Nelson Smith
Nat'l Alliance for Pub. Charter Schools
If you look at schools in the traditional system that are serving highly disadvantaged kids ... the fact is that charter schools are excelling the traditional school system by a good bit in most categories.

KWAME HOLMAN: Critics, such as a Washington community group called Save Our Schools, say charters can exacerbate problems faced by struggling traditional public schools by drawing away students, teachers, programs and funding.

GINA ARLOTTO, Save Our Schools: That was like the big promise of charter schools, wasn't it, 10 years ago. They were going to reform DCPS, not crush it and destroy it, which is actually what's happening.

KWAME HOLMAN: Gina Arlotto co-founded the charter watchdog group.

GINA ARLOTTO: All these resources that we're pouring into charters would be much better off being poured into the local neighborhood school. And I think that they were maybe, you know, kind of fooling themselves into thinking, "Oh, well, I'm going to do something for inner-city children," but, really, they didn't have the knowledge, the background, the expertise to really be able to do that.

I mean, urban education is not easy. It's a tough issue that cities all over the country are trying to deal with.

KWAME HOLMAN: But charter supporters counter that, once a charter gets established, it does a better job than traditional schools at educating low-performing students, and it takes time for such students to catch up. Nelson Smith heads the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

NELSON SMITH, President, National Alliance for Public Charter Schools: Compare apples to apples. If you look at schools in the traditional system that are serving highly disadvantaged kids, which are almost all of the kids in our schools, and then make direct comparisons, the fact is that charter schools are excelling the traditional school system by a good bit in most categories.

Both kinds of schools tested poorly

Clifford Janey
Superintendent, D.C. Public Schools
Should we debate whether or not you got two points over here and someone else got two points over here, when the proficiency rates are low and the number of schools making AYP are embarrassingly low? ... There are no bragging rights here.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Superintendent Janey, who at one point called for a moratorium on new charter schools, points out that both kinds of schools perform far below national standards. He says students in the traditional system he oversees and charter students did poorly in the recent test mandated under the federal No Child Left Behind law that measures a student's annual yearly progress, or AYP.

CLIFFORD JANEY: In the big picture, what does it mean? Should we debate whether or not you got two points over here and someone else got two points over here, when the proficiency rates are low and the number of schools making AYP are embarrassingly low? So what is it that we're talking about? There are no bragging rights here.

KWAME HOLMAN: If an educator in either system has bragging rights, it might be Ronald Taylor. A PhD candidate trained at a Harvard University program for inner-city principals, Taylor took over Emery Elementary, a traditional public school, three years ago.

RONALD TAYLOR, Principal, Emery Elementary School: These kids come from the worst of situations. Some are in shelters; some come from abusive situations; some are in foster homes; some are in, you know, group homes. But when they come here, we're all the same. We all wear our uniforms. We all behave well. We all are nice to each other. We all know what the consequences are if we misbehave.

KWAME HOLMAN: In new, more stringent tests given last spring, his students outperformed charter and other traditional students alike.

RONALD TAYLOR: I think it's your expectations. If a principal believes that everything about his or her school represents them, then you take it personally. From the floors, the way my floors look, the way my walls look, the classrooms, the way the students behave, it all is me.

We have a friendly competition with the charters, but I don't hate them, or hate their principals, or hate their techniques. Some of them are great, and some of them are not.

Unions and charter teachers

McKenna Lewis
Emery Elementary School
The focus needs to be on the students, on achievement, on improving things wherever you are.

KWAME HOLMAN: Some of that friendly competition focuses on whether teachers should be union members. Most charter teachers are not. Charter supporters say their teachers can innovate in the classroom because they're free from union work rules and the administrative bureaucracy of the traditional school systems.

But McKenna Lewis, who teaches at Emery Elementary, says union membership is important for teachers.

MCKENNA LEWIS, Emery Elementary School: I think unions can provide a benchmark for professionalism and protect employees. I think that it can be a good thing.

KWAME HOLMAN: Are charter schools an indictment of public education, do you believe?

MCKENNA LEWIS: It could possibly be the downfall, particularly when it comes to funding, of public education. So "indictment," strong word. I don't know if that would be the word that I would necessarily choose to use, but it causes there to be a divide. And, really, the focus needs to be on the students, on achievement, on improving things wherever you are.

Impact on traditional public school

Gina Arlotto
Save Our Schools
Where's the feedback loop? Where are you going to tell us what's working in charters?

KWAME HOLMAN: Natalie Butler is a former teacher at a traditional public school and now the principal at the charter school D.C. Prep. She doesn't see charters as an indictment of traditional schools.

NATALIE BUTLER, Principal, D.C. Prep: I think there are some great ideas that are being fostered in charter communities that need to be shared with public schools. And the larger we grow as charters and the stronger we become as a movement, in the district and nationally, the stronger the public schools in general will become in D.C.

KWAME HOLMAN: Traditional schools advocate Gina Arlotto also says charters are not being held accountable.

GINA ARLOTTO: Well, they've had 10 years to do that, and they've never made any move -- I mean, we brought this up. Our group, Save Our Schools, we brought this up a couple of years ago. Where's the feedback loop? Where are you going to tell us what's working in charters?

And they said, "Oh, well, you know" -- we can't do that, because they don't even want to put those requirements on their own charters. It's all, you know, let's all free to be whatever you guys want to do, and we want to know what's working so that we can start implementing this in our regular D.C. public school.

KWAME HOLMAN: The Charter Alliance's Nelson Smith says the charter movement will benefit all public schools in the long run.

NELSON SMITH: I don't care if we use the word "charter" right now. The point is, if we get to a future where we have every school that has a clear mission, accountability for results, parent choice, teacher choice to be there, it's funded equitably, and it's held accountable for results, that's the way to run public education.

KWAME HOLMAN: Meanwhile, D.C. Prep's Emily Lawson plans to open a charter school for elementary students. It is one of 159 charters across the country approved to start up this fall.