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Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Applause for Washington’s Charter Schools

By virtue of its role as host to bumbling legislators and attendant federal apparatchiks, Washington, D.C., enjoys a justifiable and continuous thunderstorm of public disdain. As a city itself, between red tape and the inexplicable career of Marion Barry, the Imperial Swamp catches a fair amount of scorn. So far as education goes, however, it is the vanguard of the charter school movement, for which it deserves a standing ovation. Washington’s success with the autonomy and competition of publicly funded microdistricts serves as a working model for education reform throughout the United States.

Reform was and is desperately needed. 

You might already have developed a sneaking suspicion that somehow you are living in a country filled with morons. Sadly, this is an empirically verifiable fact: An ominous poll conducted and verified by Guys in Labcoats underscored the surprising idiocy of our citizenry.

One out of five people thinks the sun revolves around the Earth. (Which is horrifying, of course, because it means four out of five Americans are doomed to Hell for blasphemy.) Sixty-seven percent of Americans know that Superman hails from the planet Krypton, yet only 37 percent know that Mercury is the closest planet to our sun. Three-quarters of Americans can name all three Stooges (Larry, Curly, and Ginsburg), while less than half know all three branches of government (executive, judicial, and judicial activist).

We might ask ourselves: Where along the line do people lose even the most elementary knowledge of basic geography and history, forever embarrassing us when we vacation in Europe? Surely schooling has some effect?

In this regard, Washington deserves due credit for strategically implementing genuine solutions to its hitherto boggy school performance, instead of mindlessly flinging money at it. 

In 1995 Congress authorized Washington to establish an independent system of charter schools, which sprouted up the following year. Each charter school is a publicly funded autonomous unit, allowing for competition among schools and local control within them to spur innovation.

Contrary to common belief, charter schools are generally given less funding than their public school counterparts. District children in either system attend school for free, but charter schools are allotted smaller block grants than their behemoth neighbors. They make up the difference through private donations, or by better allocating resources. Their ability to do so is astounding. From 1999 to 2005, charter schools completed renovations at half the cost of other D.C. public schools. In terms of output, poor children attending charter schools significantly outpace their peers in traditional schools.

Competition and autonomy have led to excellent teachers and higher aptitude-test scores. Free of micromanagement, bureaucracy, and politicking, charter schools have extended their hours and days, and they quickly respond to their students’ individual needs. Rocketship Prep Schools, granted a charter last year, employs the use of “computers” and “the Internet” to reduce overhead. This novel concept of fully integrating technology into the classroom affords teachers more time to spend on individual tutoring.

The main argument against charter schools is that they might outcompete sluggish public schools, prompting the district to funnel more students and fund their direction (away from public school budgets). It’s an interesting argument, because its central idea—that parents will want their children to attend superior schools—more or less acknowledges that charter schools are indeed superior. For some reason many people see this as a problem.

It’s unlikely that charter schools will permanently displace public schools. Charter schools require parents active enough to at least apply for admission on their children’s behalf, and not all parents will do so. Granted, that’s more depressing than reassuring, but it’s worth remembering that “bad parents” are not something school districts can fix, even if the NRA succeeds in arming all teachers. Charter schools at least provide more cost effective and innovative environments for children to learn in.

Overall, concerns about charter schools are muted by the applause of happy parents and locals alike—D.C.’s charter schools are nearly 20 years old, and growing. If they are indeed a conservative Trojan Horse poised to raze public education, charter schools certainly picked an overwhelmingly union-friendly and liberal city to infiltrate. 

Perhaps their success is due less to the machinations of zealous privatizers and is simply owed to performance. Cities and states across America would do well to follow suit and grant charters in their districts. Washington, D.C., has already provided the template, for which it deserves a standing ovation. Perhaps, if charter schools become more widespread, a full 90 percent of America’s youth will graduate knowing Superman’s home planet.