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D.C. Weighs Record of Charter Schools

Washington, D.C., with a struggling inner city school system, has seen nearly a decade-long experiment in charter schools -- publicly funded schools that are given more autonomy than their peers -- result in a mixed record of student performance.

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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.

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