Charters on Rise; Quality Unequal
Officials Told to Consider Closing Low-Performing Facilities
By Theola Labbé
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 3, 2006; B05
The number of District charter schools has grown dramatically in the past 10 years, but the quality has been uneven, and officials should consider closing low-performing schools, according to findings in a study to be released today.
"The State of the District of Columbia Charter School Sector 2006: A Ten-Year Review," reports that charter schools are performing slightly better than traditional D.C. public schools on national standardized tests. However, only a small percentage of charter school students are scoring at proficient or advanced levels, the study says.
The study challenges the various city and federal entities responsible for District education to work together to improve student performance.
"Can the charter sector be satisfied to perform only somewhat better than a school district that has been struggling for decades and widely known to be lagging [behind] so many other large urban districts?" asks Gregg Vanourek, the independent researcher who completed the study.
"Charter schools, if they are to fulfill their promise, must do better -- much better," he says in the study.
Vanourek used feedback from a 40-question survey sent to charter schools; existing research; and interviews with District education leaders in charter and traditional public schools to deliver his assessment of the education landscape since Congress authorized charter schools in the District in 1996.
The study was sponsored by Fight for Children, a District-based nonprofit group that funds programs in traditional public and charter schools and also supports vouchers as an alternative for parents.
The study was based on the District's 51 charter schools, which had 17,419 students on 62 campuses in the 2005-2006 school year. About 25 percent of District students attend a charter school, the third-highest percentage in the nation, the study says.
The study was completed before the release of recent test scores on a standardized test that show D.C. students in traditional public schools doing slightly better than charter students. However, more than 80 percent of traditional and charter schools failed to reach yearly academic benchmarks.
Based on the falling enrollment of students in the public school system and the growing student enrollment in charter schools, the study concludes that should those trends continue, 51 percent of public school students in the District would be attending charter schools by 2014.
Charter schools are publicly funded and open to students citywide. Two groups are authorized in the District to open new charter schools and close schools that are not performing: The D.C. Public Charter School Board and the D.C. Board of Education.
Thomas A. Nida, chairman of the charter board, said the seven-member appointed panel has not been timid about revoking school charters. But he said the board is looking at other ways to intervene earlier at schools that are struggling.
For example, it has spoken with D.C. Council members about expanding the charter board's authority to remove individual members of a school's board of trustees and to allow high-performing schools to merge with struggling ones.
"You can't just simply wield the hammer of revocation at every misstep," Nida said.
The findings will be discussed at 3:30 p.m. today at a public forum at the Hilton Washington, 1919 Connecticut Ave. NW. Participants will include charter leaders and D.C. Schools Superintendent Clifford B. Janey.
The report also says that among the two chartering boards, there is no uniform means to collect data on high school graduation rates, another important measure of school success.
On the availability of facilities for charter schools, the report says charter schools have had limited access to empty or underused District public school buildings. But according to a Master Facilities Plan recently released by Janey, 21 charter schools are operating in current or former District school buildings, either through ownership or a lease.
© 2006 The Washington Post Company