Charter Schools in Washington

It was clear that Robert Crane of FOCUS (Friends of Choice in Urban Schools) was a little uncomfortable in addressing a group of partisan Conservatives at a small restaurant outside the District of Columbia. The group meets monthly under the auspices of for the exchange of ideas and just to enjoy the company of Conservatives in a city that is not particularly hospital to Conservative. Crane did not hide the fact that he came from a different political perspective. However, it is a safe bet that he was the only person at the gathering who did not vote for George W. Bush in the last presidential election. Nonetheless, Crane bravely spoke to what could have been a hostile group. It turned out that Crane had more in common with those gathered than one might have expected.

FOCUS is a group that believes that the chronic problems of low achievement in urban schools can be addressed by proliferating the number of alternative schools, independent of the school system bureaucracy. A large number of different pedagogical approaches will more likely find those modalities that work better than the sclerotic systems many urban school systems have become. Moreover, children with different needs are likely to prosper at different types of schools.

The charter school movement in the District of Columbia seems to have fallen below the national radar. The movement was jump started during the Newt Gingrich Congress. Then Congress, over the venomous objections of the District of Columbia government, particular the school system, permitted the formation of charter schools. These charter schools would receive funding roughly equivalent in per-pupil-expenditure as the public school system. The latest figures available from the US Department of Education, lists the average per pupil expenditure in the US at $7,734 of which 61.5% is spent on instruction and the majority of the rest on support services. For the District of Columbia, the per-pupil-expenditure is $12,102 with only 49.6% spent on instruction.

At present about 20% of DC’s children are educated in charter schools. Moreover these children come disproportionately from underprivileged backgrounds. Schools, especially elementary schools, in the affluent northwest sector of the District of Columbia are doing reasonably well. It is the less affluent parents in poorer areas who are rushing to send their children to charter schools. Charter schools must accept any child for admission. If the number of applicants exceeds the number of places, the children must be randomly selected. Charter schools are not permitted to skim the easiest to educate students. For example, 73% of the high school students in charter schools are eligible for free and reduce (price) lunch, a rough proxy for family poverty. The value for regular public schools is 51%. According to FOCUS, “a close examination of the performance data … shows that, on average, students at the 11 charter high schools significantly outperform students at non-selective DCPS (District of Columbia Public School) high schools.”

Mr. Crane conceded that the impact of charter school on educational performance was yet to be determined. There needs to be more q comprehensive and systematic measures of performance. In particular, cohorts, similarly situated students, must be tracked in different schools over a period of time. This will provide a measure of how well schools have educated the students they started with.

Because the charter schools are not bound by union contracts for teachers, the National Education Association (NEA) strongly opposes charter schools. However, this may be a very short-run perspective. NEA is composed of both classroom teachers and administrators. The more efficient use of school resources may help teachers as the expense of administrators.

Consider the numbers for the District of Columbia schools system. Only 49.6% of expenditures are devoted to instruction. If the District of Columbia just devoted to instruction the same percentage as all US schools systems, far more money would be available for paying and retaining teachers. More specifically, if the DCPS devoted 61.5% (still too low a number) to instruction and if we assume 20 students per teacher, there would be about $28,000 more available to pay teachers.

One can often find the true nature of systems when they are put under stress. Now that the DCPS school system is faced with competition, the response is interesting. Since the charter schools spend more of their allotment on instruction and less on administration, Crane told the group that there are law suits against both DCPS and charter schools because of the inequitable spending. Perhaps one measure of success is the resort of others to the courts, the last refuge of those who can win neither in the market place nor at the polls.

Charter schools may be the way to wean teachers for their blind support of the NEA and moribund public school systems. They may also be a way to wean liberals from their dependence on government to the embrace of free markets and choice. Robert Crane will not soon be a Conservative, but his successors will more intuitively understand the virtues of markets and choice and not be afraid of the Conservative label.

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