The best school district in the United States?

One of the joys of my job is the number of amazing emails that arrive in my inbox.

Below is an email (pasted with permission) from Scott Pearson, the head of the Washington DC Public Charter School Board.

On this blog, as well as on twitter, we debate a lot about regulation. We have a lot to figure out and these debates help me get smarter.

But leaders on the ground have to lead, always with imperfect information and complicated local contexts.

The DC Public Charter School Board has chosen to regulate the charter community fairly tightly on performance, but more loosely on other inputs. As Scott notes in his letter, over 40 charters have closed in Washington DC over the past decade. While I don’t know if this is right for every community, the DC charter community is providing a lot of great options for tens of thousands of children, and they have undoubtedly made DC a better city.

The continuity of the DC charter community’s success also reinforces my belief in the importance of non-profit governance. It’s hard to think of a better school district in the country, and I’m highly confident that a primary key to their success is their structure: the DC Public Charter School Board regulates and non-profits operate.

It’s a winning formula for kids.

___________________

Dear Colleagues,

We have faced nearly a year’s worth of bad news about DC Public Schools, from high teacher turnover, to faked suspension data, from inflated graduation rates, to the resignation of the DCPS chancellor, to residency fraud.  This steady drumbeat has undermined confidence in our traditional public schools – far more than is warranted in my opinion.  DCPS is a vastly better school system than it was in 2007 when Michelle Rhee and Kaya Henderson took the reins.

But I’m writing today about the other half of public schools in DC, the 120 public charter schools serving 43,340 students – nearly half (47.5%) of DC’s public school students.  Our story is mostly one of continued success, growth, popularity, and quality improvement.  I feel the need to write this because I fear that the bad news about DCPS is drowning out what continues to be a remarkable story of charter school success in our nation’s capital.

First, it’s important to say that not one of these bad news stories has been about public charter schools.  Our graduation rates check out – because for years the DC Public Charter School Board has audited the transcript of every graduating senior.  Our discipline data has never been questioned.  And there have been no allegations that anybody has jumped the lottery queue at a DC charter school.

Of course, we’re not perfect. In a sector as diverse as ours there will be unflattering news to uncover.  But at least so far none of the year’s bad news has touched DC’s charter sector.

Second, our quality keeps improving.   The NAEP “flatline” story just doesn’t apply to DC’s charter schools, as David Osborne and Emily Langhornewrite in The 74.  We were up this year in three of four grade/subject areas, with fourth-grade reading scores climbing five scale score points.  That’s more than any state in the nation.  And over ten years our growth overall is faster than any other state or district.  Charter scale scores have grown 17 points in 4th-grade math, 19 points in 4th-grade reading, and 12 points in 8th-grade math.  Each of these represents over a year’s worth of learning gains.   Only in 8th-grade reading are our scores disappointing, down 2 points over the past ten years and lagging far behind our big-city peers.

Our school leaders deserve much of the credit for this growth, but the authorizer gets some credit, too.  Since 2007 we have overseen the closure of 40 low-performing charter schools, all the while aggressively supporting growth for our highest-performing schools.

Third, our improvements are not driven by a change in our demographics.  Charter schools continue to enroll higher percentages of black and low-income students than does DC Public Schools.  And charters schools now educate the same percentage of students with disabilities as does DCPS – and higher percentages of our most disabled children.

Fourth, even as our quality improves, our schools have made remarkable progress reducing out of school suspensions and expulsions.  Out of school suspension rates are down by half since 2011-12, to under 7%.  And expulsions are down over 80% to less than 0.25% – about the national average.  We’ve achieved this through transparency and communications, not through mandates.  (Though, disappointingly, our city council is now threatening to regulate school discipline.)

Finally, demand keeps growing.  Despite the charter board adding nearly 9,000 charter school seats since 2013-14, the number of unique families on charter school waitlists has risen from 7,205 in April, 2014, to 11,317 in April, 2018.  Two-thirds of our charter schools saw their waitlist length increase from last year to this year.   Waitlists are in one sense a measure of our success because it shows families want our schools.  But is also a measure of our failure – and that of the District government – to provide our residents with enough quality schools and the facilities to house them.  We need to do better.

Thank you for reading, and please reach out if there is more information or context I can provide.

Scott Pearson

Executive Director

DC Public Charter School Board

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