As a parent in the District of Columbia and longtime resident, I am stunned by the latest decision of a U.S. District Court judge who ruled against the plaintiffs in a lawsuit brought on behalf of D.C.’s public charter schools. Absent a successful appeal, the court has denied their application that District law, which requires that charter schools receive the same per-student funding as D.C. Public Schools for school operating costs, be enforced.
I remember the collapse of the District’s public education system, which reached its nadir nearly a quarter of a century ago. A comprehensively failed traditional public school system was under the supervision of a Control Board imposed by the U.S. Congress. Almost half of the students dropped out before graduating. Besides abysmal academics, public schools were chronically unsafe.
Following this low point, the D.C. School Reform Act 1995 emerged, which allowed public charter schools—tuition-free, open-enrollment campuses run independently of the traditional system—to open. Charters are free to determine their own educational programs while being held to a high standard by D.C.’s Public Charter School Board, whose members are appointed by the D.C. mayor. The board is empowered to approve or reject time-limited charter applications, and monitors school performance with the power to insist upon improvements and close campuses if necessary.
The first two charter schoolhouses opened in 1996 and—thanks to high-parental demand—charters today educate nearly half of all District public school children, pioneering an educational renaissance that is transforming our city and changing its future. Indeed, over 10,000 individual names are signed up on waitlists for charters that do not have the capacity to accommodate them.
With a reputation for the worst urban education system in the nation, the District has transitioned from sky-high drop-out rates to an on-time—within four years—graduation rate of 73 percent for charters, and 69 percent for D.C. Public Schools. Citywide standardized test scores also have consistently improved, while curricula have been enriched and after-school options expanded.
The greatest improvements in the quality of public education have taken place in the District’s most underserved neighborhoods. In Wards 7 and 8, where nearly half D.C.’s students live and which have the highest rates of poverty, charter students are more than twice as likely to meet college and career readiness benchmarks on standardized tests as their DCPS counterparts. African-American high school students have an on-time graduation rate of 73 percent in charters, compared to 62 percent for DCPS.
Competition from these unique schools of choice was one of the key motives behind the decision of the D.C. Council to bring DCPS under mayoral control 10 years ago, leading to the appointment of reforming Chancellors Rhee, Henderson and Wilson.
You can imagine my chagrin, then, to learn that a judge on the U.S. District Court should ignore the spirit, as well as the clear letter, of the law. The 1995 School Reform Act (SRA) states: “For fiscal year 1997 and for each subsequent fiscal year, the Mayor shall make annual payments from the general fund of the District of Columbia in accordance with the formula,” and “the annual payment…shall be calculated by multiplying a uniform dollar amount used in the formula” by “the number of students that are enrolled” at “District of Columbia public schools” and “at each public charter school.”
The District has flouted its own law under successive administrations, making school operating funds available to DCPS, but not D.C. public charter schools, by funding the former outside the Uniform Per-Student Funding Formula as required by the SRA.
Independent analysis has found that DCPS, but not charters, received between $72 million and $127 million annually on top of formula funds — underfunding charter students by an average of $2,150 each year from 2008 to 2014, when the lawsuit was filed.
Beyond the requirements of the law, there is the inequity of providing fewer local taxpayer dollars for some of the District’s most vulnerable children. Charters educate a higher share—80 percent— of economically-disadvantaged students than DCPS and are overwhelmingly located, by choice, in historically neglected communities.
Given the dearth of employment, housing and educational opportunities for so long in so much of our city, it is almost unbelievable that a judge might back up the city’s persistent attempts to underfund public school students educated outside of DCPS.
I have watched the government decide for years that some children are more worthy of the city’s investment than their peers. I expected more – so much more – from the U.S. District Court.
Eric McKinley King is a District parent and managing principal at 100 Proof Strategies and Solutions Consulting Group.