D.C.'S Charter Schools; Policy-Makers Should Focus on Accountability

Article excerpt


The No Child Left Behind act, with its demands for accountability, has put new pressure on the D.C. school system, which by every measure is one of the country's worst. And District school officials casting about for an excuse for this woeful performance have found a new target: charter schools, publicly funded schools that operate outside of the traditional "district" school model - and outside of their control.

Thus did the school board president, Peggy Cooper Cafritz, report to the House Committee on Government Reform last month that "over 50 percent of our charter schools are now failing." She went on to say that "fly-by-night" charter operators had taken advantage of a too-lax system of school approval and oversight to form bad schools that drained funds from school system coffers.

Charter supporters were quick to retort that a 50 percent failure rate is hardly unusual in the District public school system. Further, to blame funding woes on charters is disingenuous, since they cost significantly less per-student than comparable District schools. What's more, charters tend to draw students from the toughest neighborhoods and backgrounds who are costly to educate - youngsters for whom a charter school may be the last chance before they exit the education system altogether.

The good news is that, for many such youngsters, many District charter schools are doing a spectacular job. Mrs. Cafritz is wrong to suggest otherwise. The bad news is that this basket does contain some lemons - badly-managed schools or schools with low achievement. Six have already been closed and a few more probably should shut their doors.

Critics cite shutdowns as proof of the folly of this education reform strategy. Advocates respond that it illustrates accountability at work. At least the charter movement - as opposed to traditional public school systems - buries its dead rather than keeping them permanently on life support.

In the end, charter-school accountability runs in two directions. The charter school must satisfy its clients (students and their parents). But it must also satisfy its "authorizer," the public body that ushered it into existence and that controls its fate.

The District of Columbia has two such authorizers: the Board of Education (chaired by Mrs. Cafritz), which gave birth to 17 of today's charter schools; and the specialized "Public Charter School Board," which parented the other 25 schools now operating. …