This week is National School Choice Week, when parents, students and teachers meet with elected representatives at the federal, state and local level, making the case for school choice for those who have it—and their peers who want it.
Today, public charter schools represent the most vibrant and rapidly-expanding form of choice. Since the first chartered public school opened in 1992, enrollment has steadily increased to over three million nationwide. And only six states don’t have charter schools, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
More dramatically, the share of students educated at charters in urban areas—where traditional public school systems had failed generations of children—are among the highest in the nation. In New Orleans, 92 percent of public school students attend charters; in Detroit, 53 percent; and in the nation’s capital, 46 percent.
A different kind of public school, charters are publicly-funded, tuition-free and open to all, but operate independently of traditional school districts. These unique public schools have the autonomy to design and develop their own educational programs, while being held accountable for improved student performance by their authorizers.
Children in the District of Columbia have benefited from a strong public charter school law, and nationally-acclaimed authorizer, the D.C. Public Charter School Board, courtesy of the 1995 D.C. School Reform Act. This enabled many high-quality schools to open, especially in chronically underserved neighborhoods, taking enrollment from two campuses in 1996 to nearly half of all public school students. And now, more than 10,000 individual names are on waitlists, trying to secure a place at over-subscribed schools.
The evidence confirms the high demand for charters. Once the monopoly of D.C. Public Schools ended, high-school graduation rates climbed to 73 percent for charter students, from an estimated 40-50 percent without them. Standardized test scores also have steadily improved; and student safety has been transformed.
Alongside academic gains, a multiplication of extra-curricular options and an enrichment of curricula beyond those subjects that feature in the standardized tests has been established. Charters’ success in attracting students encouraged the city to hand control of DCPS over to the mayor, leading to a decade of reform that also saw graduation and student proficiency rates rise.
But perhaps the greatest contribution of charters has been in D.C.’s most vulnerable communities. Charter students in Wards Seven and Eight are twice as likely to meet citywide benchmarks for college and career-readiness as their counterparts in the traditional system. This lifeline—of access to college and careers—is critical to reversing the historic neglect of public education in the city’s most deprived areas, where half the adults are functionally illiterate.
In the District, all charter schools are by law nonprofits and the charter board denies more applications for the—time-limited—right to operate than it approves. Charters have produced significantly stronger schools and student achievement with fewer taxpayer dollars than the traditional system. Their model—of holding schools to account for results, but not process—has worked and improved the prospects not only of their own students, but also those enrolled in DCPS, benefiting every District child.
The old regime, which commanded school policy for all students from a central bureaucracy, failed District students to the extent that enrollment declined for a generation, leaving behind only those families who lacked other options. School choice for all—regardless of income or zip code—allowed new, more effective educational approaches to be tried and tested.
Flexibility in how to arrive at better performance was key to this, making charter schools’ autonomy an essential ingredient in raising the game of public education in the District, after prolonged neglect and indifference. It also gave the lie to the prejudice that economically-disadvantaged students could not succeed at a high level.
So many cutting-edge educational innovations have been introduced and become widespread thanks to the pioneering role of charters, once they opened in D.C. From Early College, in which high schoolers take college courses to pre-K programs that attempt to eliminate the achievement gap before kindergarten and teaching world languages, charters have blazed a trail. Charter schools brought the use of data into schools to better monitor and boost student progress as well as a vast array of supports to ensure access to college and success once matriculated.
As schools of choice, charters also are held accountable by families, with public money following their choices rather than being distributed regardless of school quality. With their flexibility and autonomy combined with accountability, charter schools are reversing decades of decline.
Ramona Edelin is Executive Director of the D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools.