DCPS wants the charter sector to engage in joint planning that would limit the number and location of charter schools. Charter advocates oppose the idea. Ultimately, the disagreement is not about planning, but about what kind of school system the District should have.

Seven years ago, the charter sector served only about 20% of DC’s students. That figure is now up to 44% and poised to grow larger.

The Public Charter School Board has already given its approval for 3 new schools to open in 2015, and two existing charters are likely to expand. One of the new schools is part of a network, Rocketship Education, that could enroll over 5,000 students here by 2019.

If current trends continue, what will DC’s school system look like in the future?

Chances are it will never be composed entirely of charter schools. There are still no charters in affluent Ward 3, and parents there are generally satisfied with the quality of the traditional public schools.

But the day will soon come when over half the District’s students are enrolled in charters. It’s not hard to imagine a time when DCPS becomes a vestigial presence in most of the District—or even disappears.

Charter success

In some ways that might well be a positive development. Many DC charters that focus on minority and low-income students have outperformed DCPS schools serving a similar population. Last year, a Stanford University study found that charter students in DC gain the equivalent of an additional 99 days of learning compared to those enrolled in DCPS.

Not all charter schools achieve those results, of course. But the Public Charter School Board has recently closed a number of charters that are under-performing, or made it possible for successful charter organizations to take them over. And it has set a high bar for approving new charters, rejecting 5 of the 8 applications that came before it this year. As a result, DC’s charter sector is among the best in the nation.

But one thing charters can’t provide, at least as they’re currently constituted, is a guaranteed slot in a nearby location. I’ve heard charter leaders say that the right to a low-quality neighborhood school is no right at all, and there’s some truth to that. But many parents, at all socioeconomic levels, feel that a chance at a high-quality school on the other side of town isn’t what they’re hoping for either.

Neighborhood schools

There are other factors weighing in favor of neighborhood schools aside from parent preferences. From an efficiency and environmental standpoint, it makes no sense to have families and students crisscrossing town twice a day to get to school.

And a system that relies on choice almost inevitably ends up working to the disadvantage of the least sophisticated members of a community, who may lack the knowledge or the initiative to get their children into the most desirable schools. That’s what seems to be happening in Chicago and other cities with an all-choice high school system. To some extent, it’s already happened in DC.

Charter schools could go a long way towards resolving these problems by agreeing to give a preference to kids in their neighborhoods. But the charter community as a whole has opposed the idea, even when an individual charter simply wants to exercise that option.

So at this point, as far as neighborhood schools go, DCPS is the only game in town. Theoretically, competition from charters should spur DCPS to improve its low-performing schools, and some charter leaders seem puzzled by, or scornful of, DCPS’s apparent inability to equal their success.

It’s clear to me that DCPS is trying hard, and in some cases those efforts have borne fruit. But the very success of charters has made it more difficult for DCPS to compete.

DCPS’s challenges

As the charter sector has grown, DCPS has seen its resources decrease, since some of its funding has followed students who leave for charters.

Perhaps more important, it’s also increasingly been left with the students who are hardest to educate. I don’t mean that charters deliberately skim off the better, more motivated students. Especially given the participation of the vast majority of charters in the common lottery, I doubt that’s taking place. And it’s also true that charters have their share of kids who are homeless or have learning disabilities or other challenges.

But low-income parents who take the trouble to apply to a charter are likely to be more invested in their children’s education than those who just rely on the default setting. That can make a significant difference to a child’s ability to achieve.

And some students, voluntarily or not, end up leaving charters for DCPS schools, often showing up at random points throughout the school year. Additional students enroll mid-year because they move into the area or switch from another DCPS school.

Having to absorb students, some of whom have behavior problems, well after the school year has begun can cause disruption for everyone. And it’s something charter schools don’t have to deal with. While some do continue to take students throughout the year, many high-performers, such as the KIPP GROW KEY middle school or Thurgood Marshall Academy, choose not to.

Some charter leaders say their schools could overcome these challenges if they had to. But the fact is, they haven’t had to, so we don’t really know.

If neighborhood schools are worth preserving, the question is: how can we ensure that the only neighborhood schools we have—DCPS schools—not only survive but thrive?

Further rapid expansion of charters doesn’t seem to be the answer. But imposing limitations on a hostile charter sector, under the guise of “joint planning,” is also less than optimal. What’s needed is genuine cooperation, so that the two sectors can achieve their shared goal of providing an excellent education to all of DC’s kids as quickly as possible.

In a future post I’ll consider how DCPS and the charter community might be able to move beyond the argument over joint planning and find opportunities to collaborate that each side could enthusiastically embrace.

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.