D.C.’s Charter School Experiment

D.C. charter schools were created by an act of Congress, the District of Columbia School Reform Act of 1995, and originally were seen as a compromise preventing private school vouchers. (After George W. Bush’s administration came to power, Congress, with the complicity of the mayor and elected school board president, mandated vouchers even though a Zogby poll showed that 85 percent of African-American voters and 76 percent of all voters opposed them. 3)

The School Reform Act, widely considered one of the most aggressive charter school laws in the nations, created two chartering boards that could issue up to 20 new charters a year and approve an unlimited number of “expansion” campuses under which existing charters expand by opening additional schools at a new site. The law, which Congress has amended several times, also mandates a per-pupil funding formula and additional money for facilities, and gives charters right of first offer and a 25 percent discount on surplus public property. The law also prohibits the imposition of neighborhood boundaries around charter schools. 4 (54-5).

…White flight in the 1950s and 1960s, followed by middle-class black flight a decade later, left public schools with a majority population of low-income children of color. According to the 2005 census, Washington has a child poverty rate of 32 percent–the highest in the nation. 5 This demographic reality has been accompanied by a long process of underfunding and outright neglect of schools and other basic social rights, from affordable housing to child care and medical services (55). …

When D.C. was teetering on the edge of insolvency in 1996, Congress forced the city to cede much of its home rule authority to a Control Board, which removed the superintendent of schools and all members of the elected Board of Education (the city’s first popularly elected body). The Control Board then named a retired U.S. Army general to oversee the schools, established an appointed Emergency Board of Trustees, and handed over facilities management to the Army Corps of Engineers—which did no better with the district’s school buildings than with the levees of New Orleans (56).

…Congress’ School Reform Act prohibits local officials from passing local laws designed to limit charter growth (59).

…cherry-picking and dumping…Complicated enrollment processes allow some charters to filter out undesirable families; others engage in vigorous recruitment from existing neighborhood schools. One charter even sent letters throughout a neighborhood promising $100 to parents enrolling their child in the school. 22 Most troubling is what has become known as the “October Surprise”…the practice of some charters of dumping unwelcome students back into the traditional public schools after the D.C. government performs an enrollment audit and “equalizes” funding. After the head count, schools keep their money, even if they later expel students or encourage their departure. Because traditional public school must accept in-boundary students throughout the year, the district absorbs students who are pushed out of the charters. Per-pupil funding follows the students out of the public system, but fails to follow them back in (60).


El-Amine, Zein, and Lee Glazer. ” ‘Evolution’ or Destruction?: A Look at Washington, D.C.” Keeping the Promise?: The Debate over Charter Schools. Eds. Leigh Dingerson, Barbara Miner, Bob Peterson, and Stephanie Walters. Rethinking Schools: Milwaukee, WI, 2008: 53-66.

photo courtesy of PhotoGraham, used under this Creative Commons license

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5 Responses to D.C.’s Charter School Experiment

  1. no experiment will work unless teachers are committted and parents do their job at home

  2. Pingback: bark, bugs, leaves, and lizards :: The Army Corps of Engineers Charter School

  3. Professor Zero says:

    You see why I hold the position I do … all public funding to regular public schools.

    Do you, random readers, think that is unfair to people who do not want to use public schools? Well, my tax money goes to fund many things I disapprove of or do not wish to use. The government tells me they are doing me good anyway, making me safe and so on.

  4. mominem says:

    Congress may not always be wise but the governance of the DC public schools called for drastic action (as has the governance of the New Orleans Public Schools).

    The Constitution vests ultimate responsibility for DC in the Congress.

    “The Constitution of The United States of America
    “Article I
    “Section 8. The Congress shall have power to …

    “… exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten miles square) as may, by cession of particular states, and the acceptance of Congress, become the seat of the government of the United States”

    While it’s clear to me that you do not support Charter Schools, what do you propose as an alternative to a seriously broken public education system in New Orleans?

    Sending yet more money to a system that can’t accurately account for the money it has already gotten isn’t a realistic solution, in my opinion. Paying the same old teachers more money seems to me like throwing money down a rat hole.

    I am in favor of Public Education. I never attended a private school in my life and yet I can’t see a solution, without radical reformation, and I can’t imagine how that will happen.

  5. G Bitch says:

    That panic-urgency is used as a tool and excuse for knee-jerk reactions based as much on reality as prejudice, bias, ideology and fantasy. And drastic action does not have to mean dismantling public education or handing over schools to private education management organizations. The assumption that “the market” is the perfect or The solution smacks of fanaticism and is generally adhered to regardless of facts, evidence, consequences, etc. The privatization of schools cannot be the main or the bottom-line goal. There has to be more to it.

Comments welcomed. Really.