A yard sign advertising a charter school in DC. Image by Alicia Griffin licensed under Creative Commons.

DC has the fourth-highest charter school enrollment of any city in the country, with 46% of all public school students attending a charter school last school year. So why is the issue of school choice still so divisive?

Despite the rapid growth of charter schools, many parents and organizations oppose the proliferation of charters as detrimental to public education. The NAACP released a controversial report last week recommending that school districts invest in low-performing schools, develop strong common accountability standards, and require fiscal transparency and equity. To put this debate in context, here’s some background on charter schools nationally and here in DC.

Proponents of charter schools believe choice and competition improve education

Charter schools are publicly-funded, privately-managed schools each led by a separate board of directors. The nation’s first charter schools opened in 1991 in Minnesota, born of Republican opposition to unions and government bureaucracy and moderate Democrats’ desire to embrace market-oriented reforms. Early proponents believed charters would inspire innovation and experimentation within the larger public sector, while also remaining accountable to the public through test scores.

DC’s first charter schools opened in 1996 after the passage of the DC School Reform Act alongside wide dissatisfaction with the DC Public Schools (DCPS) system. Today there are 65 different charter operators (called “Local Education Agencies” or LEAs) that operate 116 different charter schools in all wards of the city, except its most affluent, Ward 3, where parents overwhelmingly choose their neighborhood schools.

All DC charter schools are managed by nonprofit boards which set each school’s curriculum, calendar, discipline policies, and (for the most part) hire and fire all teachers at will. DC’s Public Charter School Board touts the length of a school’s waitlist as well as the distance a family is willing to travel as proof of its quality, and supporters point to higher test scores and graduation rates as further proof of charter schools’ superiority. In a choice-rich city like DC, it is the family’s responsibility to find a school that best matches the interests and needs of their child.

Proponents of traditional public schools believe democratic oversight and investment improve education

On the other hand, supporters of DCPS believe education is a public good that should remain the responsibility of the public and its elected officials. Neighborhood schools can serve as a community anchor, drawing together various civic interests amidst ongoing gentrification and change. DCPS schools also deliver some of the highest quality education available in the city, especially in its selective admissions schools.

Closing struggling public schools (or turning them into charter schools) can also lead to disruptions and uncertainty for students and neighborhoods in need of greater stability. If public officials would adequately support the neighborhood public schools, proponents argue, families would not have to travel long distances or enter a lottery to find a good school. Critics also believe that charters undermine traditional public schools by leaving them under enrolled and underfunded.

Families are stuck in the middle

While the debate between charter and traditional public schools rages on, parents are left to navigate DC’s complex school choice environment with few clear or objective measures. DC’s accountability plan for the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) creates a unified five-star quality rating system, but even this measure has sparked controversy for over-reliance on standardized test scores. Dozens of studies show mostly mixed results in comparisons between each sector, and critics can point to recent scandals in both the charter and traditional public sectors as evidence of failed accountability.

Ultimately parents just want what’s best for their children. Most will look at both public and charter schools to find the best fit, and anything the city can do to streamline that process while also promoting strong schools in all eight wards will help everyone. The challenge for the District’s education leaders is deciding whether the responsibility for finding a good school lies with the city or its families.

Will Perkins is a graduate student at American University and intern with the 21st Century School Fund. He worked for five years in DCPS and in a DC charter school as a teacher, department chair, and volunteer coordinator.