Photo of glasses from Shutterstock.

Recent calls for coordinated planning between the DCPS and charter sectors have led to the fraying of a once-cordial relationship between the two. But the underlying tensions aren’t new.

Recently, the DCPS Chancellor and the Deputy Mayor for Education (DME) have called for “joint planning” between the traditional public school and charter sectors that would place limits on the growth and location of new charters. The charter sector has adamantly resisted that suggestion.

To Chancellor Kaya Henderson and DME Abigail Smith, along with some DCPS parents, joint planning signifies rationality and an end to a wasteful duplication of resources. To many in the charter sector, the phrase smacks of bureaucracy, centralization, and dangerous inroads on the autonomy that has enabled them to thrive.

As someone with a foot in each education sector, I can understand and sympathize with both points of view. I’m a member of the board of a DC charter, and I’ve tutored in two DCPS high-poverty schools. I’ve contributed financially to both DCPS and charters. And I’ve had both formal and informal conversations with educators and officials in both sectors, from classroom teachers to top administrators.

DCPS’s perspective

DCPS wants to ensure that the plans it’s making aren’t undermined by charter competition. Henderson would like to avoid situations where charter schools locate close to DCPS schools that have a similar focus, as will happen in one DC neighborhood this fall, and lure away students the system expects to serve.

Henderson has said that she would like to see a process that allowed officials of DC’s Public Charter School Board (PCSB) to join with other DC policy-makers in identifying which neighborhoods most need new schools or specialized programs. The PCSB, which is the District’s charter authorizer, would then use those priorities when it considers new charter applications.

The DME’s recent proposal to redraw DCPS boundaries and feeder patterns has put a spotlight on the difficulty of making plans for DCPS without knowing how many more charters will spring up and where they will locate. The proposal, for example, calls for DCPS to open several new middle schools. But what if, after DCPS spends millions of dollars renovating or constructing these schools, new charter middle schools locate nearby?

As the charter sector has grown rapidly, DCPS has faced significant challenges. The District now has the third-largest charter sector in the nation, enrolling 44% of the students here, and it’s poised to grow larger.

When students leave DCPS for charters, they take money with them—around $10,000 per student, per year. You might think that DCPS’s costs would go down commensurately. But there are fixed costs associated with maintaining under-enrolled school buildings. And it’s hard to provide a full range of programs at schools with few students. Those are the reasons that prompted Henderson’s decision last year to close 15 DCPS schools, in addition to the 23 closed by her predecessor.

As Henderson tries to plan to serve students in the future, not knowing where or when competing charters will pop up, she may feel like a bride reciting her wedding vows while the groom eyes the attractive bridesmaids standing nearby.

The charter sector’s point of view

The charter sector, for its part, wants as few restrictions placed on it as possible. Leaders of high-performing charters in DC feel, justifiably, that their relative nimbleness and freedom to experiment has enabled them to devise ways of educating kids more successfully than DCPS. And they want to expand, rapidly, in order to bring the benefits of their innovations to more students.

They also argue that DCPS enjoys advantages that charters don’t, particularly when it comes to buildings. DCPS is able to draw on hundreds of millions of dollars in government funds for renovated or new buildings, many of which are dazzling—and, in some cases, half empty. Charters receive far less to fix up, rent, and maintain their facilities and often have to draw on private contributions to do so.

More fundamentally, it’s notoriously difficult for charters to find suitable space at all in DC, and charter leaders complain that DCPS has been slow to release its vacant school buildings for their use. While some have been leased to charters in recent years, securing one is a lengthy, uncertain, and time-consuming process. And there are still around 20 buildings DCPS is sitting on, hoping to use them again someday.

In fact, the charters point to the lack of available space as one reason that joint planning between the sectors wouldn’t work. At the time they apply for authorization, prospective charter operators never know exactly where they’ll be able to find a place to locate.

Charters are proud that, despite these obstacles, they’ve been able to compete and generally outperform DCPS, especially in raising the achievement of low-income students. Competition, they say, has improved the quality of education for all—including, to some extent, those remaining in DCPS.

And, unlike DCPS, charter advocates see no reason to limit that competition. If DCPS students leave for the charter across the street, so be it. Why, they ask, doesn’t DCPS just make its schools better? Privately, they may attribute DCPS’s lagging performance to incompetence and overspending on a bloated bureaucracy.

I can see legitimate points in both the charter and DCPS perspectives. But I also see what appear to me to be some blind spots as well. In a future post I’ll elaborate on those and discuss how the two sectors may yet be able to work together towards their common goal of raising the quality of education for DC’s students as quickly as possible.