Photo by Sean MacEntee on Flickr.

If DC Public Schools are to compete with charter schools, let them expel any students who keep other students from learning. Special safety-net schools, perhaps run by the Department of Youth and Rehabilitative Services, could fulfill our duty to provide mandatory education.

Does this sound crazy?

Charter schools get to do something similar. If that’s fair (and some say it is), shouldn’t DCPS get to do the same?

Emma Brown reports in the Washington Post that “DC charter schools expelled 676 students in the past three years, while the city’s traditional public schools expelled 24.”

Charter schools thus get rid of the problem students and often boost their own average test scores in the process. DCPS schools cannot expel elementary students and must convince judges to expel older students. Charters have no such restrictions.

Where there is no level playing field, there is no competition. That’s why, as I’ve written before, we will never leverage innovation in education until we level the playing field — in neighborhood preference, common lotteries, funding and facilities access… and maybe expulsion policies, too?

Of course, I don’t really support allowing DCPS to expel anyone into DYRS safety net schools. Instead, charters need to operate under the same expulsion policies as DCPS.

That’s basically what the DC Office of the State Superintendent of Education proposed to do last August. As Brown reported, however, “charter leaders mounted a vigorous opposition.”

Why should charter schools get competitive advantages that traditional public schools don’t get, and vice versa?

Isn’t competition, competition which leads to innovation benefiting students, the point of charters? You’d be surprised how many people disagree with that statement.

Education reformers abandoning competition as a goal

Why do we have choice in education? Is it because we want parents to have a dozen specialty programs from which to choose — Montessori, Chinese-immersion, and so on? That’s one benefit, but the reason charters became part of the DC education system is to make schools compete to attract parents and students, creating pressure for them to do better.

Most DC residents still assume that competition is the point of school choice. Post reporter Mike DeBonis, for example, writes that “Charter schools exist to give competition to traditional public schools” and that “debate rages over whether the playing field is level.”

However, it seems like the goal for education reformers has drifted from competition to having lots of charters, on the premise that lots of charters is a sign of competition. Proposals that limit charter success, like neighborhood preference or common expulsion policies, are thus anti-reform, even if the point of the proposal is to stimulate competition.

Yesterday, StudentsFirst, the reform advocacy organization led by former DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee, released state-by-state report cards grading progress in school reform. Many states, like Tennessee, were graded low for their slow processes for “charter establishment and expansion” and lack of “equitable access to facilities” for charters.

However, no unfair competitive advantages charters enjoy, like freedom to expel, lack of neighborhood preference and lack of a common lottery, were counted against states. Eric Lerum, VP for National Policy for StudentsFirst, told me that “competition isn’t [the] goal. Better schools for kids should be.”

The Brookings Institution, similarly, recently ranked urban school systems on “choice and competition.” DC ranked 3rd, largely because 41% of public school students attend charters. That report distinguished charters from traditional public schools in the report as “schools of choice.”

I always thought the point of choice was not to have lots of charters because there’s something magical about charters. The point was to have competition, because competition leads to innovation.

The Federal Trade Commission, which is in charge of protecting competition in private consumer markets, said last week that “the FTC’s mission is to protect competition, and not individual competitors.” Education reformers appear to have lost that same focus on competition, not individual competitors.

Charter autonomy isn’t autonomy from educational challenges kids pose to DCPS

Charter advocates challenge proposals to adopt neighborhood preference in charter admissions or common expulsion policies as an infringement on charter autonomy. But the point isn’t to grant charters as much autonomy as possible so that they will be as successful as possible.

The point of charters is to provide competition to traditional public schools, competition which leads to innovation. But competition requires a level playing field.

That means it makes sense to give charters autonomy in how they address educational challenges for their students. Their teachers don’t have to be union members. Their budgeting doesn’t have to follow DCPS budget rules.

However, charters shouldn’t have autonomy from the educational challenges themselves from the kids. If they do, then we don’t really have competition, which is the point of charters.

Total autonomy isn’t what leads to innovation. Competition leads to innovation. In fact, autonomy from the educational challenges posed by kids to DCPS undermines innovation.

I believe in charters because I believe that competition leads to innovation. We won’t really know what the charters can innovate, and what DCPS can innovate, until we create a truly competitive market for schools in DC.

Most DC residents are not ideological about education. They don’t think charters are a conspiracy to privatize education. And they don’t think concerns about charters are a conspiracy of unions to defend their turf. They want innovation in urban education for their kids and kids across town.

It’s up to this pragmatic majority of DC residents to start demanding a reasonably level playing field between charters and non-charters through neighborhood preference, common lotteries, common expulsion policies, and equal funding and facilities access for charters.

Ken Archer is CTO of a software firm in Tysons Corner. He commutes to Tysons by bus from his home in Georgetown, where he lives with his wife and son.  Ken completed a Masters degree in Philosophy from The Catholic University of America.