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An op ed in the Washington Post on Sunday said the balance between the DCPS and charter sectors resembles a “thoughtful weave of charters and traditional schools.” It’s not clear many others would agree.

Richard Whitmire, the author of a biography of former DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee and a recent book on the Rocketship network of charter schools, dubbed DC an “education hot spot” in his Post opinion piece. He noted the high proportion of top-ranked charter schools in the District and praised both Rhee and current DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson for making DCPS “the fastest-improving urban district” in the nation.

No doubt there are those who would quibble with some of these statements, but at least they’re based in fact. Where Whitmire really goes off the mark is in characterizing the current relationship between DCPS and the charter sector as harmonious, and the pattern of DCPS and charter schools as “thoughtful.”



Whitmire seems to have somehow overlooked the recent flap about joint planning, which has brought to light tensions that have been lurking under the surface of the generally cordial relationship between the two sectors in recent years.

DCPS and the Deputy Mayor for Education want limits placed on where charters locate and on the number of charters that can be approved. The charter sector is adamantly opposed to that idea, saying it would threaten the very autonomy that has enabled them to thrive.

Recently, irked by the announcement that a new charter will open across the street from a DCPS school with a similar focus and serving the same age group, Henderson compared the situation to “cannibalism.” The charter sector’s response, although phrased slightly more diplomatically, is that DCPS simply can’t compete. Harmony? Hardly.

One thing both sectors would probably agree on is that Whitmire’s characterization of the district-charter landscape here as a “thoughtful weave” is way off base. Both sides see waste and duplication. Some DCPS schools, even some that were recently built or renovated at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, stand half-empty.

Meanwhile, charters scramble for space, often spending millions to retrofit buildings that were not designed for school use, while DCPS hoards its mothballed vacant buildings in hopes it will be able to use them again.

Thoughtfulness implies planning, and that’s one thing we don’t have. At least, not in any truly thoughtful sense. That is, plans can be made for DCPS, as in the recent proposals for new boundaries and feeder patterns. But charter schools can then completely upend them.

Even one member of the PCSB had to take issue with what she called Whitmire’s “overly rosy picture of the potential for charter-DCPS collaboration.”

DC isn’t different

One of the most puzzling things Whitmire says is that the “DC model is different” from that in other cities, where “it’s a matter of market share,” and the traditional public schools “view every child in a charter as a revenue loss.” He follows that by explaining that DC has had a “liberal charter school law and generous per-student payments that allowed for quick growth.”

But DC isn’t different from those other cities. When a child leaves DCPS for a charter, she takes that generous per-student payment with her, making it more difficult for DCPS to sustain programming for those who are left. And the charter sector’s “quick growth” has only made the problem worse, from DCPS’s point of view.

DC charters now serve 44% of the “market,” if that’s how you want to characterize the student population. And that has led DCPS to close almost 40 schools over the past 6 years.

What’s remarkable is that, despite this competition, DCPS and the charter sector have managed to work as cooperatively as they have. This year the common school lottery was a huge step towards rationality in school admissions, even though some charters chose not to participate. And Henderson has shown her willingness to enter into partnerships with charter organizations that want to collaborate with DCPS to improve outcomes for DC’s most disadvantaged kids.

But given the recent heated rhetoric, it’s not clear how long that kind of cooperation will continue. I certainly hope that both sides find a way to resolve their differences. But ignoring their existence, as Whitmire does, won’t make them disappear.

Natalie Wexler is a DC education journalist and blogger. She chairs the board of The Writing Revolution and serves on the Urban Teachers DC Regional Leadership Council, and she has been a volunteer reading and writing tutor in high-poverty DC Public Schools.