As public school students begin a new school year, they do so to an array of educational choice that is the strongest in decades—perhaps ever.
Backed by the decision to increase the Uniform Per-Student Funding Formula, which funds public school operating costs this school year and last, District families continue to demonstrate increasing confidence in D.C. public schools and D.C. charter schools.
The new school year will doubtless see a further increase in public school enrollment after eight consecutive increases, following decades of decline and the flight of those with the means to choose alternatives to the District’s public schools. A trend that began only with charters, enrollment which has grown steadily for over two decades, now extends also to DCPS, where enrollment has increased for six years in a row now.
Charter schools, which educate nearly half of all District public school students, have been a key component in this educational renaissance. Charters are publicly-funded and tuition-free, like traditional public schools, but free to design and develop their school curriculum and culture, while being held accountable for improved student performance.
When charters were first introduced 21 years ago, half of all public school students dropped out before graduating. Yet today, the on-time—within four years—high-school graduation rate is 73 percent for charters, and 69 percent for DCPS.
Standardized test scores have significantly improved at both public charters and DCPS, with the strongest gains among D.C. charter schools serving our most disadvantaged communities, east of the Anacostia River. Just-released scores for last school year show that charter students in economically-disadvantaged Wards Seven and Eight are more than twice as likely to meet state college and career readiness standards as their peers in DCPS.
Importantly, improved test scores in both charters and DCPS have been accompanied by an enriched curricula and a wider range of extra-curricular options.
Bringing choice to our city’s least-advantaged residents has brought huge improvements, in terms of college and career-readiness, for those whose need for a quality education is greatest.
Accordingly, demand for these unique schools is such that nearly 10,000 students are on waiting lists to attend one or more charter campuses in the school year about to begin. Demand for traditional public schools in the out-of-boundary program also has increased. And choice for parents has been simplified by DCPS and D.C. charter participation in the common lottery, which allocates places when schools’ popularity causes them to be over-subscribed.
Charters’ success also has been the catalyst for improvements in the traditional public school system, following the introduction of mayoral-control of DCPS and the appointment of three reforming School Chancellors.
The District has replaced a vicious circle of declining standards and enrollment, and therefore a dwindling tax base, with a virtuous one of rising standards, increasing enrollment, and broader and deeper revenue sources.
Of course, more could be done to support the improvements made possible by the District’s charter school innovation—for newcomers and existing residents.
Not least among these is the fact that District law requires that D.C. charter school students receive the same city funding as their DCPS counterparts, at each grade and level of special education. Yet the city provides DCPS between $72 million to $121 million in extra funding annually—support that charters do not receive.
Additionally, D.C.’s government spends about three times as much on DCPS students for facilities, compared to their siblings and neighbors in D.C. charters. Subject to annual budget wrangling in a super-hot real estate market where charter schools must find their own space to educate their students, charters’ facilities allowance is inadequate to their students’ needs.
The Mayor’s proposed 2.2 % increase in charters’ facilities funding – approved by the Council—locked in for four years is a welcome step toward narrowing funding inequity. A facilities fund floor of $3,500 per-student, indexed to increasing costs, adjusting accordingly each year would make up for some lost ground, and reflect economic realities.
Leveling the playing field could enhance the choices that have created today’s confidence in education in the District. This—and continued adequate investment in operational and facilities funds—is required to build on the District’s education successes, fulfilling the potential of every child.
Dr. Ramona Edelin is executive director of the D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools.