“A mistake is simply another way of doing things,” suggested Katherine Graham, the emphatic, longtime Washington Post publisher. Not, however, when that mistake threatens harm to others, such as the 20,000 District of Columbia schoolchildren currently attending its public charter schools.
That public charter schools are thriving in the nation’s capital is old news. Today, one in three students attend its 55 charter schools, with many more on waiting lists. Of these, two-thirds operate under the authority of the D.C. Public Charter School Board (PCSB), created in 1996.
A new proposal by Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton threatens the efficacy of the board, one of the most effective entities in D.C. public education, by proposing to replace the process by which its members are selected. Currently, the board is chosen by the mayor, from a list of qualified candidates compiled by the federal Department of Education. The new plan from Congresswoman Norton would eliminate any federal role, and leave the filling of Board positions to an as-yet unsettled process between the mayor and city council. Meanwhile, momentum has been building on the council to institute a moratorium on new charter schools.
The bipartisan charter school board, which operates a lively office in the rehabilitated Tivoli Theater on 14th Street in Columbia Heights, is more than just a regulator, but an active resource for charter school leaders citywide. Its diverse membership brings to the board a range of considerable educational and business experience.
In 1996, the first two D.C. charter schools opened under authorization by the D.C. Board of Education. Ten years and dozens of new schools later, the Board of Education gave up its authorizing responsibility, leaving the Charter School Board as the sole chartering authority.
While many D.C. charter school leaders would offer praise for the board’s thoughtful leadership, few, if any, would call it lax in its diligence for oversight. Its Chairman Tom Nida, a career banking executive, recently observed, “Part of the reason the charter board has been so successful is that it has been non-political.”
The success of the PCSB can be seen in its shining stars, including KIPP Key Academy, Capital City PCS, and the Washington Latin School. “Now compare that to the success rate of the former charter office at the D.C. school board — there is no comparison,” observed Nida.
In a recent editorial, the Washington Post said, “The fact is that students in schools approved by the PCSB scored better – in all grades – on math and reading tests than those in public schools or in the charter schools sanctioned by the old Board of Education.” Requiring that Board members be District residents seems reasonable. But, given these results, to change the oversight structure now would truly be a mistake.
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