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Charter school coordination with DCPS means unbearable lightness of being

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The Washington Post's Emma Brown had this blunt comment regarding the D.C. Public Charter School Board's approval of three new schools Monday evening:

"But the expansion also sparks questions about whether it makes sense for the board to continue approving new charters — which now enroll nearly half the city’s students — without regard for their location or their impact on the traditional public school system."

Only a traditionalist would question offering students who languish in low quality schools the option of moving to facilities that are high performing. But I'm afraid this line of reasoning is beginning to enlist feelings of guilt from people who have lived their lives fighting to use competition for students as a means for improving educational outcomes in this city. Take a look at the reaction of Deputy Mayor for Education Abigail Smith, as quoted by Ms. Brown:

"And although joint planning would be a 'major policy shift for the District,' she said, 'this is a conversation whose time has come. . . I firmly believe that if we take the issue head on, through candid dialogue and a close look at the data, we can come to agreement on how to better achieve the goal of joint planning . . . for the purpose of better serving kids across the city.'"

We cannot fall into this trap. "Joint planning" means that if a DCPS school is in the vicinity of where a charter is about to locate then the new school will be prevented from opening. But my reaction is this; if the traditional schools are so good why would a parent move their kid from that facility? The answer, of course, is that the chance to attend the charter could be the opportunity of a lifetime for that child.

It appears that the PCSB is also beginning to feel the heat. Ms. Brown quotes unnamed charter board members as saying "they realize that they can, and should, do a better job of compiling, sharing and using data about where schools are most needed."

But charters are needed everywhere. The Illinois Facility Fund study estimated that we must create an additional 40,000 quality seats to ensure that every child has a chance for an excellent public education. While some charters have been approved and others have agreed to replicate since the time the report was issued we have yet to make a dent in this figure. It appears only Scott Pearson, the PCSB's executive director, understands what is really going on here. Again from Ms. Brown:

“'It’s my hope that this boundary process . . . will not be used as a stalking-horse to impose some sort of central planning on charter schools,' said Scott Pearson, executive director of the board. Pearson said he and his colleagues see a 'tremendous need' for good schools across the city and that charters can help meet that need because they operate outside of the city’s bureaucracy."

It is imperative that after almost 20 years of work the PCSB is not shamed into restricting the number of strong charter schools that are allowed to operate in the nation's capital. If this does become the case then, as with many of the characters in a Milan Kundera novel, there is really no reason those of us working to fix the schools to exist.

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