One companys filing of the city's largest-ever charter application… (Jared Soares/For The Washington…)
It’s the latest sign that the District is on track to become a city where a majority of children are educated not in traditional public schools but in public charters: A California nonprofit group has proposed opening eight D.C. charter schools that would enroll more than 5,000 students by 2019.
The proposal has stirred excitement among those who believe that Rocketship Education, which combines online learning and face-to-face instruction, can radically raise student achievement in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
Rocketship’s charter application — which is the largest ever to come before District officials, and which might win approval this month — arrives on the heels of Chancellor Kaya Henderson’s decision to close 15 half-empty city schools, highlighting an intense debate about the future of public education in the nation’s capital.
A growing number of activists have raised concerns that the traditional school system, facing stiffer-than-ever competition from charters, is in danger of being relegated to a permanently shrunken role. And they worry that Washington has yet to confront what that could mean for taxpayers, families and neighborhoods.
“Maybe we need an entire school system full of charters,” said Virginia Spatz, who co-hosts a community-radio talk show on D.C. education. “But we need to have that after public conversation, not by accident.”
Politicians appear to have heard the call. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) acknowledged in his State of the District address Tuesday that charters — which are publicly funded but independently run — are likely to soon educate half the city’s students.
“Certainly there are strengths to such an approach. But there are also challenges — challenges with which no city has yet grappled,” said Gray, who added that he has directed his education cabinet to develop a coordinated “road map for public education.”
Competition has forced both school sectors to improve, Gray said in an interview, and should be preserved. “I don’t believe in monopolies,” he said. “Anything that tips the balance too far in one direction or the other is not good for our children.”
D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), the influential chair of the council’s new education committee, also says the city has too long allowed charters and traditional schools to operate in isolation, without a vision for how they should coexist.
“Right now we have schools that pop up everywhere . . . competing against other established charter schools and traditional public schools,” Catania said. “I think we have a responsibility to help manage this process.”
Though he says he doesn’t want to slow charter expansion, Catania says he will push for “a momentary pause so that we can make sure that we’re all growing in the same direction.”
He says that lawmakers could influence charters’ growth by accelerating the closure of underperforming charters or — even more aggressively — by withholding $3,000-per-pupil facilities payments from new charters to discourage them from opening.
The city’s traditional public schools hemorrhaged enrollment for four decades before their student rolls flattened out at about 45,000 in 2009. Charter enrollment, meanwhile, has steadily climbed for the past decade. It jumped 10 percent this year, to more than 34,000, or 43 percent of all students.
Government attempts to “manage” and “plan” future growth could invite a battle with charter advocates, who have long argued that local lawmakers have no authority to regulate charter schools that were founded on free-market principles.
Those advocates say they welcome planning that would improve parents’ ability to navigate school choices and would allow more charters to move into surplus public schools buildings instead of scrounging for rental space in church basements or commercial buildings.
But they reject the prospect of anything that smells like a limit on growth. The city is too urgently in need of more good schools, they say.
“I’m not interested in joint planning as a cover to put some sort of moratorium on charters,” said Scott Pearson, executive director of the D.C. Public Charter School Board, which has unilateral authority to open new schools and close those that underperform.
Robert Cane, executive director of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, a pro-charter group, was more blunt.
“It’s a very bad idea for a government that cannot run an effective school system to try to run, in any way, shape or form, the much more effective charter school program,” he said. The traditional school system “is the government’s playground, and they should play in it — and leave the charters alone.”
Congress opened the door for D.C. charters in 1996. Their growth since has often been overshadowed by the efforts of Henderson and her predecessor, Michelle A. Rhee, to reform the city’s troubled school system.