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Opinion: Nation's capital proves power of charter schools

Dr. Ramona Edelin is executive director of the D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools.

In this piece, Edelin marks the 25th anniversary of charter schools, which are likely to get a boost if Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump's nominee for U.S. Secretary of Education, is approved by Congress. DeVos is a strong supporter of both charters and vouchers.

By Ramona Edelin

As we mark the close of one administration and transition to another, this is an opportune moment to mark how far we have come in reforming public education, as well as the longer journey that lies ahead.

Chartered public schools have become increasingly familiar — although by no means universally so — to urban citizens who enroll their children in charters or would like to. Most people, however, are not aware of this education reform’s recent anniversary.

It has been 25 years since the first charter school law was signed by Minnesota Gov. Arne Carlson. Publicly funded, charters are free to operate independently of traditional public school districts by designing their own school curriculum and culture, while being charged with raising educational standards by their authorizers.

Like traditional public schools, charters are tuition-free and non-sectarian. Also, like most of their traditional counterparts, no charter school may administer entrance exams or auditions, and must serve students on a first-come, first-served basis.

Unlike schools in the traditional system, charters are able to attract and incentivize talented staff to work at their schools; to provide innovative educational programs that take students far beyond being taught to pass standardized tests; and can be closed if their regulators find they are under serving their students.

As schools of choice, parents must elect to send their children to a charter. What has made charters unique is they took the concept of choice, once available only to those with the means to afford private education or live in affluent communities, and made it available to economically disadvantaged students. This revolution, which created an attractive alternative to dysfunctional, decaying and dangerous school systems, accounts for much of charters’ popularity. There are now charter school laws on the books in 44 states.

As a resident of the nation's capital, I have seen with my own eyes what a difference extending choices to all can achieve. Before the first public charter schools were opened 20 years ago, the public education system in Washington, D.C., was collapsing into crisis. One study found the longer students remained in the system, the worse they performed.

About half of the students dropped out before graduating. Besides abysmal academics, schools were unsafe. Many looked more like correctional facilities than places of learning. As years became decades, the problems persisted and tragically became the new normal.

The on-time graduation rate for District charters is now 72 percent. D.C. charters educate a higher share of economically disadvantaged and minority students than non-charters. In D.C.’s most underserved communities, two-and-a-half-times the number of students at charters are meeting D.C.’s career and college readiness standards, compared to their peers in traditional schools.

Forget caps on charter numbers and underfunding charter students. Let’s embrace more of these unique public schools: future generations of children and parents deserve no less.


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.