Washington, D.C.: Creating an Ecosystem to Support a High Charter Market Share

In 2012–13, nearly 35,000 students attended public charter schools in D.C., accounting for 43 percent of the city’s total public school enrollment.1 The city consistently ranks among cities with the highest charter school market share nationwide. The current school landscape consists of 112 schools operated by 61 nonprofits in 94 facilities across the city.2 With such a high market share and varied landscape, the city has had to evolve to accommodate the growth and expansion of a new, independent sector of schools. The steps D.C. has taken as its charter sector has grown offer important lessons and guidance for cities to ensure that their growing charter sectors are fully folded into the city’s education system.

Four Key Practices

D.C.’s charter school law was enacted in 1995 under the D.C. School Reform Act. The first charter school opened in 1996.3 Since then, the city’s charter school sector has grown rapidly, educating nearly half of the city’s public school children today. The charter sector’s growth has not been without contention; however, the city has begun to embrace four key practices that have enabled the charter sector to become a meaningful part of the city’s public education system. While the specific nuances of D.C.’s context may be unique, the steps it has taken are fully transferrable to other cities across the nation.

  1. A high-quality, independent authorizing body: The D.C. School Reform Act of 1995, which authorized charter schools, created two authorizers: the D.C. Board of Education and an independent authorizer, the D.C. Public Charter School Board (PCSB). Following a 2005 U.S. Government Accountability Organization (GAO) report that concluded that the Board of Education was failing to implement high-quality authorizing practices,4 the Board voted to relinquish its authorizing power. All of its schools were transferred to the PCSB in 2006; the PCSB remains the sole authorizer in the city. As an independent authorizing body, the PCSB developed high-quality authorizing practices that help create and sustain high-quality charter schools. According to NACSA, independent chartering boards such as the PCSB can “provide the expertise, scale, and capacity important to quality authorizing.”5 The PCSB has earned a reputation for rigorously regulating school quality by consistently shutting down low-performing charters and building up high-performing ones.6
  2. A rigorous, transparent performance management framework (PMF): The PCSB has created and implemented a high-quality PMF to evaluate the performance of the city’s charter schools. This framework allows the PCSB to ensure that each charter school complies with its charter agreement and to hold schools accountable to high standards. The PMF consists of both academic and non-academic (financial health and compliance) elements.7 Every year the PCSB evaluates each school on each component. Based on their academic performance, schools are designated as Tier I (high performers), Tier II (mid performers), or Tier III (low performers). Tier III schools are encouraged to develop a school improvement plan and may be candidates for charter revocation. This framework has been instrumental in ensuring the quality of the charter sector remains high.
  3. District-charter collaboration: The District of Columbia has made headway in bridging the gap between the district and charter sector. In fall 2014, the city launched My School DC, a common enrollment system allowing families to complete a single application to apply to all participating schools. Families rank up to 12 schools, and a random lottery assigns students to schools. Only six schools do not participate in My School DC, meaning that families are able to easily apply to the vast majority of public schools in the city.8

    Despite some progress, tension remains between DCPS and the charter sector. The issue of facilities is particularly illustrative of the conflict, as charter schools struggle to find adequate space despite a surplus of district-owned facilities: “Expensively modernized DCPS buildings that are half empty sit near vastly oversubscribed charter schools that are scrambling for space.”9 For years, charter schools have consistently struggled to access closed school buildings. In 2012, for example, 23 school buildings were closed, and at least 18 were given to entities other than charter schools.10

  4. A well-developed “ecosystem” of school support organizations: D.C. has developed a citywide “ecosystem” of local and national nonprofit and civil-society organizations that help meet critical needs of charter schools. Examples of such organizations include Teach For America, TNTP, the Urban Teacher Center, the Capital Teaching Residency, and New Leaders (formerly NLNS), which have supported the city in attracting, developing, and retaining high-quality teachers and school leaders; advocacy groups such as Friends of Choice in Urban Schools (FOCUS) that advocate on behalf of charter schools; Building Hope and the Charter Schools Development Corporation, which help charter schools locate and access facilities; EdOps, which assists charter schools with back-office activities like finance and human resources; and organizations like Infosnap, which help charter schools streamline and facilitate their application and registration processes. In other cases, stakeholders have come together to support the internal workings of charter schools through groups such as the D.C. Special Education Co-operative, which helps schools provide high-quality, compliant education services that meet the diverse and complex needs of special education students.

    D.C.’s support ecosystem continually evolves to meet the changing needs of the rapidly growing charter school sector. As the local school district’s footprint continues to shrink, new organizations will be started and existing organizations will begin to grow.

None of what is happening in D.C. is unique. However, due to its high penetration of charter schools, D.C. is farther down the path to developing a system designed to support the sector’s growth and development than are many other cities. Cities currently experiencing their own charter sector growth and development should take note of D.C.’s actions to ensure that the charter sector has become a viable and valuable component of a city’s school system.

  1. “Total Students: District of Columbia,” National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, accessed February 9, 2015, http://www.publiccharters.org/dashboard/students/page/overview/district/DC-1/year/2013.
  2. “About Us,” District of Columbia Public Charter School Board, accessed February 9, 2015, http://www.dcpcsb.org/about-us.
  3. “DC School Reform Act of 1996,” Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, accessed February 9, 2015, http://focusdc.org/school-reform-act.
  4. “Charter Schools: Oversight and Practices in the District of Columbia,” U.S. Government Accountability Office (2005), accessed February 9, 2015, http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d05490.pdf.
  5. “Creating Independent Chartering Boards,” National Association of Charter School Authorizers, accessed February 9, 2015, http://www.qualitycharters.org/assets/images/Policy_Brief_Independent_Chartering_Boards_FNL.pdf.
  6. Richard Whitmire, “How DC Got to be an Education Hot Spot,” District of Columbia Charter School Board, July 14, 2014, accessed February 9, 2015, http://www.dcpcsb.org/blog/how-dc-got-be-education-hot-spot.
  7. “Performance Management Framework: Guidelines and Technical Guide,” District of Columbia Public Charter School Board (2011): accessed February 9, 2015, http://www.dcpcsb.org/sites/default/files/data/images/2010-2011%20pmf%20guidelines%2011_1_11.pdf.
  8. “School Options Outside My School DC,” My School DC, accessed February 9, 2015, http://www.myschooldc.org/find-schools/school-options-outside-my-school-dc/.
  9. Natalie Wexler, “Should DCPS and Charters Coordinate More,” The Washington Post, May 22, 2014, accessed February 9, 2015, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/all-opinions-are-local/wp/2014/05/22/should-dcps-and-charters-coordinate-more/.
  10. Aaron Wiener, “Process for Charters to Inherit Vacant DCPS Buildings Gets a Wee Bit Easier,” Washington City Paper, May 20, 2013, accessed February 9, 2015, http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/housingcomplex/2013/05/20/process-for-charters-to-inherit-vacant-dcps-buildings-gets-a-wee-bit-easier/.
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