Debating D.C. Charter Market Share: Quality Schools for All Kids Should Be Primary Goal

I’m deeply perplexed with my colleague Andy Smarick’s recent Education Gadfly post responding to my PCSB colleagues Scott Pearson and Skip McKoy’s op-ed on the roles of charter schools and DPCS in the D.C. education landscape. Andy appears to read things into Scott’s and Skip’s piece that are not what they actually wrote, nor what I know them to believe. As a result, he draws some strange conclusions.

The irony here is that what Scott and Skip are calling for is basically what Andy previously called for in The Urban School System of the Future: A new approach to organizing public education in which traditional districts continue to operate, but as one of a variety of providers, competing with charters to serve students and held accountable for their quality. To a large extent, that’s already happening in D.C.: DCPS still serves the majority of the District’s children, but it’s no longer assumed to be the default provider of public education. Nor are charters viewed as a marginal alternative. Rather, policymakers and stakeholders in the District recognize that we have a diverse delivery system—in which parents choose among a variety of charter and DCPS options, and DCPS is the largest, but no longer the dominant, education provider.

Andy’s call for a new authorizer is particularly confusing. Authorizers have a very constrained role: To review applications for charter schools, to approve those with high-quality educational and business plans and capacity to implement them, to monitor the performance of schools once approved, and to hold those schools accountable for performance—including closing low-performing schools when necessary. Ultimately, these decisions should be based on the quality of individual applicants and schools—not an overarching “vision” for the share of a city’s schools that should be run by charters.

To be sure, there are things that authorizers can do to attract high-quality applicants or encourage growth of high performing schools. And the PCSB has done these things. A few years ago, we created a new “Experienced Operator” application process to encourage more high-performing, national CMOs to apply for charters in D.C. We’ve also encouraged the highest performing home-grown schools in our portfolio to replicate—and recently approved two excellent schools, Thurgood Marshall Academy and Two Rivers PCS, to open additional campuses next year.

These are not the actions of an authorizer trying to slow the growth of charters—which is what Andy seems to fear. His post refers to a “pausing of D.C. chartering.” But no such pause exists. In a few weeks, we will hold hearings on a new cycle of charter applicants. If these applicants can demonstrate that they offer well-designed models and strong operational plans, then the board will approve them. If they do not, then we should not. It’s hard for me to see what a new, quality authorizer would do differently.

The implication of Scott’s and Skip’s argument is not that D.C. should slow the pace of charter growth, nor that the city should aim for a specific percentage “balance” between DCPS and charters. Rather, it’s that D.C. leaders, in creating the infrastructure to help families navigate D.C.’s choice-based system, should build an infrastructure that supports parent choice across both DCPS and charters. The MySchoolDC Lottery system, for example, enables parents apply at one time for both charter and DCPS out-of-boundary, high school, and preschool seats. PCSB has also worked with DCPS and OSSE to create School Equity Reports that help parents, policymakers, and other stakeholders understand the whether and how DCPS and charter schools are truly serving all students. Ultimately, parents don’t care whether a school is run by a charter or DCPS, as long as it serves their kids well.

Unlike Andy and our friend Neerav Kingsland, I don’t claim to know the “right” combination of charter and DCPS options for D.C. The “right” combination of charter and DCPS schools is whatever combination exists on the day that every single child in D.C. is able to attend a high-quality school his parents are happy to send him to. And I don’t presume to have the prescience to know what that will be.

But given how far we remain from that day, I’m loathe to write off any potential operator of quality schools. DCPS currently operates a number of successful, highly sought after schools—like Janney, Brent, and Banneker—that parents clear see value in and that offer options the city’s charter sector can’t currently provide. Whether or not it’s desirable for charter schools—or any school—to have neighborhood preferences or selective admissions is a conversation worth having—not sweeping under the rug. I, at least, have real concern about the potential consequences of such policies—not just for the thousands of DC students who travel to different Wards every day to attend better schools, but for the charter movement writ large.

The irony is that Andy and Neerav, proponents of relinquishment, actually seem to want a more centrally managed approach to improving education in D.C. than my colleagues and I do. They seem to believe that charter leaders should set a vision for a city’s charter market share and then work toward that vision. But the charter movement has historically been based on a more bottom-up approach: limit barriers to the creation of new charter schools; foster the supply of charter applicants; allow only those of strong quality to open; hold charter schools accountable for performance; close the bad ones; encourage good ones to grow. Within the parameters of accountability, providers and parent preferences—not planners—drive the pace of charter growth. This approach reflects a degree of humility about the extent to which we can predict what will produce the best results for kids. As I ponder the challenges that continue to face public education in the District of Columbia—even given the growth of quality options in both DCPS and charters—I think a high degree of humility is in order.

One thought on “Debating D.C. Charter Market Share: Quality Schools for All Kids Should Be Primary Goal

  1. Neerav Kingsland

    Sara – thanks for the post. Quick thoughts:

    1. Scott came out and explicitly said all charter was not good for DC. This could mean that even if charters were outperforming DCPS, and they had capacity growth, there might be a reason to slow growth one a certain market share is hit.

    2. I do think market share matters, though it should not be the primary goal. Market share affects finances, political clout, and, potentially, voting patterns. Of course, this is not a reason to grow weak charter schools. But there is a relationship, I think, between market share and the likelihood that political pressure can be put on doing something about failing schools, equity in finances, etc. So I do think it should be considered when making decisions.

    Hope this is of use.

    Take care,

    Neerav

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