Conceived as a way to give educators more freedom from government bureaucracy, charters also were meant to offer families alternatives to failed local schools.
And parents have flocked to them. Open to students across the city, charters conduct lotteries when demand exceeds available space, and waiting lists at the most sought-after schools carry thousands of names.
That’s evidence, national observers say, that D.C. charters have room to keep expanding.
“So long as there is a demand, you are going to continue seeing the growth, and it could very well marginalize the public school system,” said Nina Rees, president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, a Washington-based advocacy group.
Nobody knows what it would mean for the District to become a charter-dominated city. Outside of New Orleans — unique because Hurricane Katrina destroyed so much public infrastructure in 2005 — no American city is further along in the swing toward charters.
But there are plenty of questions. What happens when city officials funnel an increasing number of tax dollars to schools over which they have little direct control? How should charters’ citywide enrollment policies — which give families choice, but also mean kids are sometimes commuting an hour or longer to class — be reconciled with parents’ desires for neighborhood schools?
There are fears, too, that as charters grow, they will increasingly attract families who are equipped to navigate the school-choice world — leaving traditional schools with a greater concentration of the most difficult-to-educate children.
Charters can require parents to fill out an application and commit to volunteer hours, and they can expel students who fail to meet strict behavior standards. Traditional neighborhood schools, meanwhile, must take all comers.
“I’m dealing with a different set of raw material,” Henderson told the D.C. Council in January.
Perhaps the most important question is whether a charter-dominated city has a better chance of offering more good schools.
Henderson is not averse to charters and, in fact, has said she would like to have the power to authorize new charter schools herself. She says in some cases, charters are succeeding where the school system has failed.
Some D.C. charter schools have impressive achievement records, and on average charters have both a higher graduation rate than the traditional school system and higher average scores on the city’s annual standardized tests.
But performance varies widely, and nearly two decades after the charter movement took root in Washington, just less than half of all charter students are proficient in reading, according to 2012 standardized-test results, and 55 percent are proficient in math.
Advocates say those results can improve as the D.C. Public Charter School Board becomes more aggressive about closing schools with poor academic records, encouraging successful local charters to expand and recruiting national operators with a track record of success.
Rocketship is one such experienced operator. The organization runs seven San Jose, Calif., K-5 schools that have generated national buzz by posting some of the highest test scores among high-poverty schools in California.
Admirers include members of the District’s charter school board, which likely will vote to approve Rocketship’s charter application later this month.
Rocketship is “exactly the type of charter school operator” that the city should seek to attract, Pearson wrote in July.
“Their performance with new schools has been remarkable, among the best in the country with low-income kids,” charter board member Don Soifer said in an interview.
If its proposal is approved, Rocketship plans to open its first school of 630 students in the 2015-16 school year and add schools during the next four years. The organization aims to operate in wards 7 and 8, sections of the city with some of the highest poverty and lowest academic achievement levels.
The charter board also is considering a proposal from Virginia-based for-profit K12 Inc., which has proposed a 550-student school that, like Rocketship, would combine online and brick-and-mortar learning.
Another two dozen groups — including Los-Angeles Based Green Dot and New York-based Democracy Prep — have indicated that they intend to apply by March 1 for approval to open charter schools in the District as soon as fall 2014.
If history is any guide, most of those schools will not win approval. But the charter board is committed to giving a green light to proposals it deems promising.
“So many schools, including charter schools, are not offering the quality of educational services that we need to offer our students,” Pearson said. “The board has been, and continues to be, very comfortable authorizing what we believe will be high-quality additions to the city.”
Four new charters are scheduled to open this fall and Pearson said he expects total charter enrollment to grow by 8 percent in 2013-14, to more than 38,000 students.
That doesn’t mean the traditional school system must shrink, Pearson says, arguing that charters and traditional schools are both attracting families who previously would have moved to the suburbs or enrolled in private schools. Total city enrollment increased 5 percent this year, to more than 80,000, the fourth consecutive year of growth.
Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.