Photo of Muriel Bowser and Natalie Hopkinson at last week’s forum by the author.

Some DC residents see the continued growth of charter schools as a threat to the DC Public School system. Others believe that competition between the sectors will spur DCPS to improve. At a recent mayoral forum, it became clear that Muriel Bowser and Carol Schwartz basically fall on one side of this divide while David Catania is on the other.

The forum was sponsored by a coalition of organizations that have called for strengthening neighborhood schools and requiring coordinated planning between DCPS and the charter sector, which now serves 44% of DC students.

Charter advocates have argued that the market should determine the school landscape. If parents are voting for charters with their feet, they say, why stop them? Their view is that competition with charters will spur DCPS to improve.

Those who want to limit charter growth respond that charter expansion is undermining DCPS’s ability to compete. They say charters attract the more motivated lower-income families, increasingly leaving DCPS with the students who are hardest to educate.

And they point out that in some areas, middle-class families start bailing out of DCPS after 4th grade, scrambling for spots in the subset of charter schools that appeal to a more affluent population. If charter growth is restricted, the argument goes, many of those families will remain in the system and help improve neighborhood schools.

In one recent instance, a science-themed charter school opened across the street from a similarly-focused DCPS school. In addition to competition for students, some argue that this kind of growth results in a wasteful duplication of resources.

Close questioning at the forum

At last week’s mayoral forum, which can now be viewed online, moderator Natalie Hopkinson hit hard on these issues when questioning the three candidates in a series of one-on-one conversations.

With each candidate, Hopkinson described her own frustrating experience as a DC parent: her neighborhood elementary school closed twice, there was no middle school that her child could attend by right, and she spent five years on the waiting list for the charter school of her choice.

She also presented the candidates with statistics suggesting that DC now has far more schools than it needs. In 1965, she said, the District had 147,000 students and 196 schools. Today, there are 85,000 students and 213 DCPS and charter school buildings.

Is this growth sustainable, Hopkinson asked? She presented the competition between DCPS and the charter sector as a “death match” for enrollment and resources that is “getting nastier” as charters increase their share of the student population.

Both candidates agreed with Hopkinson that competition from charters was sometimes harmful to DCPS schools, and they all initially responded that they would be able to get the charter sector to coordinate with DCPS voluntarily.

But when Hopkinson pressed them on what they would do if voluntary measures failed, Bowser and Schwartz said they would seek changes in the law to limit charter growth.

“I’m willing to do whatever it takes to best leverage our public school dollar,” Bowser said.

And Schwartz said that she would ask Congress to “tweak” the DC School Reform Act it passed in 1996, which brought charter schools to the District.

Catania, on the other hand, took issue with Hopkinson’s premise that the two sectors were engaged in a “death match.” Enrollment is growing overall, he said, and there are plenty of schools to go around.

He acknowledged that in some situations it may be unfair to locate a charter next to a DCPS school—for example, when the charter is in a newly renovated building and the DCPS school is dilapidated.

But, he added, “I don’t believe in putting an artificial hold on charter schools while DCPS struggles to improve itself. I think we need to put DCPS on an equal footing, and DCPS needs to compete.”

Catania said that DCPS has missed opportunities to make its schools more attractive, citing its failure to fund a promised STEM program at H.D. Woodson High School in Ward 7 and the lack of a bilingual school east of the Anacostia River.

The limits of a competitive model

Competition with charters has in fact spurred improvements in DCPS, and perhaps Catania is right that DCPS will only continue to improve with competition. But many parents are likely to opt for a charter with an established reputation rather than take a chance on a DCPS school with a troubled history, no matter how many shiny new classrooms and programs it gets.

The candidates’ different responses on charter growth reflect a fundamental divergence in DC’s education debate over what should be prioritized: individual choice, or what some perceive to be the common good.

Charter schools have provided many students with a better education than they would have gotten otherwise. And charter advocates have a good point when they say it’s unfair to limit parents’ ability to choose the best possible public education for their children.

But if the charter sector gets much larger, the challenges DCPS faces may become truly crippling. And that’s a problem not just for DCPS, but for the students who remain there and the communities they live in.

Some argue that people are responsible for their own choices, including the choice of a worse school. But a choice-based school system can end up penalizing children whose parents or guardians make ill-advised choices or no choice at all. It doesn’t seem fair to hold those children responsible for choices they can’t make for themselves.

Who can change the law?

Even if we decide we want to limit charter growth, it’s not clear how we would do that. Would Congress need to change the law, as Schwartz assumed? Or could the DC Council amend the law itself?

That question could be resolved by a lawsuit currently pending before a DC federal court, another topic raised at the forum. Charter advocates have sued the District over unequal funding, arguing that the Council has no authority to deviate from the Act’s central provisions.

If the charter advocates prevail in court, those who want to limit charter growth will be at the mercy of a Congress that may well be unresponsive.

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.