Public education reform is under attack in a new book from Diane Ravitch. Her book, Reign of Error, is hitting bookstores nationwide. Ravitch attacks chartered public schools, which are run independently of the traditional public school system and educate 44 percent of all public school children here in the nation’s capital, as part of a wider agenda.

Wealthy corporations are funding the gradual privatization of the American public school system, Ravitch claims, destroying democratically accountable school systems and neighborhood public schools. Ravitch contends that school choice advocates are blaming schools and teachers for poor student performance, when poverty and urban racial divisions provide better explanations for the achievement gap in which low-income students lag behind their peers.

The book makes some valid points. The agenda of some of the corporate money spent on promoting some school choice efforts is often not the same as that of the educators who work in low-income neighborhoods. The people on the ground understand that poverty and residential segregation need to be addressed, if the communities in which they work are going to improve. But as educators, they happen not to agree with Ms. Ravitch—because they know that the substandard schooling that has, for decades, blighted urban education is also an important factor in entrenching poverty. Urban public education was ignored by the powers-that-be for too long, and our children were held back by a mistaken, but alarmingly prevalent, belief that they could not achieve academically.

In the District of Columbia, school choice is not driven by private industry. Public charter school choice has been a strong addition to tuition-free public education, particularly in the city’s most underserved communities. Far from being corporate, the city’s public charter schools are D.C.-registered nonprofits. This charitable status is consistent with their decision to locate in the city’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods. Overall, D.C.’s charters serve a higher share of students eligible for federal school lunch subsidies than the city’s traditional public school system. They also have proven that it is possible to raise the quality of the public education offered to the most disadvantaged students.

Charters’ on-time high-school graduation rate is 21-percentage points higher than the traditional school system. Prior to the passage of the D.C. School Reform Act in the mid-1990s, it was estimated that about half the students dropped out before graduating. Charter students also outperform their peers in DCPS on the year-end standardized math and reading tests. At the same time, charters typically offer considerable instruction beyond these basic subjects. They are often themed, allowing students to specialize in such areas as law, public policy, bilingual immersion, and classical studies.

Because D.C. charters are free to create their own school culture and curriculum, while being held accountable for improved student performance, they have been able to find the most effective educational methods. For example, charter high schools are able to specialize in college preparation—many have 100 percent of their graduating class accepted to college. Others have embraced instructional methods ranging from expeditionary learning, which emphasizes learning by doing in the real world, to blended learning. 

Far from cutting themselves off from D.C. Public Schools, charters have increasingly shared their expertise with the city, acting as partners as school system officials have sought to benefit from their successes. Schools such as the Appletree Early Learning Center, Achievement Prep, and Friendship Public Charter School have formed partnerships in this way, to the lasting benefit of students enrolled in traditional public schools. 

D.C’s charters have often also contributed to the wider community, as neighborhood regeneration has followed from the establishment of successful charter educational programs. Many are located in school buildings long-neglected by the city, but which are community assets once more. As D.C.’s mayor has sought to make available to charters school buildings that the school system no longer needs, the stage has been set for further fruitful collaboration between the city, DCPS and charters, benefiting every District child.

By empowering low-income students, who previously had no choice but substandard public schools, the District’s charters have begun a renaissance in public education, which has benefited those who needed it most. The traditional public schools also have posted stronger academic results in the wake of charters’ success. While more co-operation and success are still needed, D.C.’s education reform has increased accountability, strengthened disadvantaged neighborhoods and helped position our least advantaged students for a better future.

Dr. Ramona Edelin is executive director of the D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools

Dr. Ramona Edelin