The Washington Post
By: Stephanie McCrummen
November 14, 2010
The next crop of would-be D.C. charter school operators gathered in a gray conference room on 14th Street one night last week, more than 30 hopeful men and women, each with his or her own pitch.
"Hello," began one woman. "I am a founder of Believe Charter School. We believe every child in D.C. has the right to a high-quality, first-class education."
"Hi," another woman began, offering her idea. "I'm soft-spoken. Sorry. I believe it's important to prepare kids adequately and empower them."
"I am a psychologist," said an older man in a pinstripe suit, "and each day I go home depressed because I see so many 10th- , 11th- and 12th-graders who can't read."
The meeting was convened by the District's public charter school board to explain the application process for opening a charter school, a list of requirements that fits into an hour-long PowerPoint presentation.
The District can approve up to 20 new charters each year. Of 13 applications last year, four schools were conditionally approved to open in fall 2011. In general, business is booming.
The city has 96 charter schools, which enroll more than 28,000 children, or about 38 percent of public school students, the largest percentage of any school system in the nation.
Essentially entrepreneurial ventures, charters receive public school money but have a higher degree of autonomy than traditional public schools in how they teach and operate.
The theory is that public education should be a competitive marketplace of choices.
Charters are supposed to encourage innovation, provide parents with a viable option to traditional public schools and spur struggling schools to improve.
More than two decades into the experiment, though, their academic results vary widely across the country and in the District, which pro-charter groups say has one of the best laws governing charters in the country.
Although some charter schools, notably the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP Academy, perform exceedingly well, standardized reading and math scores among charter students as a whole remained relatively flat this year.
And from 2007 to 2010, test scores at regular public secondary schools have risen at a faster clip than at charters.
Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, a pro-charter group, said that viewed over time and from a national perspective, charters look much better.
"When you do that state by state, you get a picture of charters achieving at higher rates and closing gaps faster than traditional public schools," she said. "The overall picture is much brighter than negative."
Allen said that states with poorly performing charter schools are often poorly governed by school boards that tend to be overworked from dealing with the regular school systems or are conflicted about the concept of charters and deal with them only grudgingly.
She said that the District's system of empowering an independent board to oversee charters is ideal.
"The states with independent boards tend to have healthier charter schools," she said.
To help parents better assess the quality of charters relative to each other, the D.C. charter board is preparing a performance management system that will rank them into three "tiers" based on measures including test scores, reenrollment, graduation and college acceptance rates, said Jacqueline Scott-English, director of the board's school performance team.
As she went through her slides Wednesday, she emphasized to the prospective educators that the autonomy granted to charters comes with a price - accountability.
"I heard a lot of interesting school names, but how do you put that into a mission statement?" she said. "How will I know your school is performing well? What's your recruiting plan? What's your business plan?"
People took notes. Among them was Nosa Eweka, an Ivy League graduate who plans to start the 21st Century School, which intends to lure high school students with job training in fields such as music production and media.
"Here in D.C., every politician employs an average of five media professionals. . . . We believe that using the media theme, or even jobs such as fashion management, will get high school students interested in learning," he said.
Across the room was a man who wanted to start an all-male leadership academy, a woman who wanted to start a school aimed at dropouts and a young man who had a dog-eared copy of "The Death and Life of the Great American School System" in his lap.
Another attendee said: "Ah, I'm just wanting ideas about starting a charter? Or, um, possibly starting a business overseeing charters?"
In the back was Alice Speck, co-founder of the proposed City of Trees school. The effort began a year ago with a group of parents chatting in her living room in the Shaw neighborhood.
Unhappy with their neighborhood school, they decided to create their own.
"We have a real dream of possibly partnering with the National Park Service in locating our school in Rock Creek Park, for example," Speck said. "Can you imagine bringing diverse students with diverse needs into the park? We are pursuing every avenue and every dream we might have."