Two Rivers Public Charter School pre-kindergartener students taking… (Mark Gail/THE WASHINGTON…)
This spring, for the third year in a row, more than 1,000 families sought fewer than 50 available spaces at the Two Rivers charter school in Northeast Washington, which has produced some of the city’s best reading scores.
Parents love Two Rivers even though its elementary building has no cafeteria, library, auditorium or gymnasium. The only outdoor recreation space at the school, located in a converted auto-repair warehouse with a leaky tin roof, is a vest-pocket playground out front.
About a mile away is Walker-Jones, a traditional elementary and middle school, which has poor test scores and a $42 million state-of-the-art building. Farther to the northwest are the $72 million Alice Deal Middle School and $125 million Woodrow Wilson High School.
The contrast between Two Rivers and the gleaming traditional public schools nearby tells a larger story about education in Washington. While the District pours billions into rebuilding a city system that has more classroom space than it needs, parents are increasingly opting for charter schools. If trends continue, charter enrollment will surpass the traditional public school population before the end of the decade.
Yet even as charters soar in popularity, D.C. officials have often relegated these schools to second-class status, maintaining funding policies and practices that bypass charters and steer extra money to the traditional city school system.
D.C. officials contend that the differences are not inequities but the hallmarks of a different educational model. Charters, publicly funded but privately operated, benefit from being free of central bureaucracy, collective-bargaining agreements and procurement rules, they say.
Supporters here and across the country say the absence of those constraints helps to make charters an essential alternative to traditional public schools. The best of them have demonstrated an ability to close the achievement gap between rich and poor children, which has bedeviled public education for decades.
Critics regard the charter movement as an assault on a bedrock democratic institution — the neighborhood public school. They cite studies showing that most charters do no better, and often worse, than traditional schools in serving poor children. By siphoning off money and motivated families, they say, charters have left the traditional school system with fewer resources to serve the most disadvantaged students.
What’s not in dispute in the District is the robust growth of the charter sector. In 1998, the District’s traditional system served 95 percent of public school children. But what began as a congressionally mandated experiment to spur improvement in established public schools is now an institution in its own right. Enrollment has grown nearly tenfold since 2001.
Although charter schools represent just 4 percent of the nation’s public school enrollment, they serve 41 percent, or 31,562, of Washington’s 76,753 public school students — the highest concentration in any school district besides New Orleans.
The city’s 123 traditional schools have shown more overall growth on standardized tests over the past six years, but charters posted higher scores on the 2012 D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System. Their four-year graduation rate (80 percent) is 20 points higher than that of traditional D.C. high schools.
During his 2010 campaign, Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) promised to “bring an end to the days in which charters are pitted against traditional public schools for precious city resources.”
In e-mailed responses to questions, Gray cited initiatives he has launched to help charters, including increased special education funding and an accelerated process for turning over vacant city school buildings.
“I have kept my promise,” Gray said.
But charter educators, feeling misled, said Gray has ducked core issues of facilities, funding and fairness. The District is spending $5,986 per student this year for construction and renovation of city school buildings. Charter schools, not included in the capital budget, received $3,000 per student to lease or purchase buildings, an allotment that will dip to $2,959 in 2013 — a sector-wide decrease of $1.3 million — because of changes in federal funding policy.
“The expectation was that he would move to equalize,” said Donald Hense, chairman and chief executive of the Friendship Public Charter School system. “My question is, when does he plan to start?”
Separate and unequal?
The field next to Friendship Collegiate Academy along Minnesota Avenue NE is strewn with glass and trash. This is where the Friendship Knights, the District’s best high school football team last year, prepared for its championship season. It is also where the baseball team practiced this spring.