By Dr. Ramona Edelin, Special to the AFRO

With the scandal surrounding the federal investigation into inflated high-school graduation rates at D.C. Public Schools—the traditional public school system—and the decision of the charter board to revoke the charters of two public charter schools, the District’s public schools have made news lately.  But as parents and guardians seek to make sense of the latest developments, identifying and facing the facts is more important than some of the more sensational and selective media coverage.

What these stories have in common is that they speak to how we should hold our public schools, funded as they are by taxpayer dollars, accountable for the critically important task of educating our city’s children and preparing them for careers, college and adult citizenship.  We want accountability for the sake of all of our children enrolled in public schools—the 53 percent who attend DCPS, and the 47 percent who are educated at the District’s public charter schools.

Ramona Edelin

The “pretty significant bumps” in the road identified by Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) referred partly to the graduating of under-credited students uncovered by a local reporter. While the investigation by federal authorities is ongoing, it seems likely that the on-time—within four years—high-school graduation rate will fall significantly from the reported 73 percent for the traditional school system last year.  The “bumps” reference also covers the flouting of residency requirements at a DCPS school.

At around the same time, one preschool through eighth grade all-girls public charter school had its charter revoked by the D.C. Public Charter School Board—which cited failure to meet academic targets the board has set—and will now be run by DCPS.  And a public charter high school is at risk of closure absent a new building.

Like all public schools, charters are tuition-free and taxpayer-funded, but differ from traditional public schools in that they can design and determine their own educational programs.  Charters are independent nonprofits whose educational outcomes and governance are monitored by the charter board.

Overall, the public has confidence in the public charter schools that educate nearly half of District public school students.  Standardized test scores have consistently improved, while the D.C. public charter school on-time graduation rate has risen steadily to 73 percent which, unlike that of DCPS, is not in question – and is evaluated by the charter board rather than the traditional public school system.

But there are issues around how schools are judged and what are the most effective ways to improve outcomes for students growing up amid intergenerational poverty, in neighborhoods that lack adequate resources and services, while also being underserved educationally.

The charter board divides schools into three tiers based on a variety of academic metrics—broadly, Tier 1 is considered “high performing,” Tier 2 “compliant,” and Tier 3 “under-performing,” and therefore at risk of closure.  But while student outcomes vary, so do the level of resources invested in students.

In the District, about 85 percent of Tier 2 public charter schools are headed by executive leaders of color.  These schools also are native to D.C. and operate as single campuses, rather than the multiple campus networks run by some of the national charter school management organizations.  While motivated, engaged and determined, the leaders of these schools too often lack access to resources and supports, in particular the private fundraising many national CMOs can leverage.  These significantly add to the public funds available via D.C.’s per-student funding formula.

More needs to be done to strengthen and source additional funding for these homegrown schools that, through local history, experience and connections often have a strong understanding of the needs of students from historically underserved District communities.  Such leaders with strong ties to the neighborhoods they serve need to be better supported to deliver excellent academic outcomes for students, and better networked to additional sources of investment and other supports.

District charters already serve, by conscious choice of school location and mission, a higher share of economically disadvantaged students than the traditional public school system, while producing stronger educational outcomes and significantly enriching curricula and after-school options.

A level playing-field where all public charter schools can access the philanthropic and human capital resources currently only available to some has the potential to improve the educational offering charters can bring to the one-half of District students defined as “at risk.” How much more could be accomplished, in particular in terms of erasing the achievement gap between such students and their peers, if every public charter school and school leader could access such support?

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

Dr. Ramona Edelin