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The 2014 FOCUS Gala

Last Thursday night my wife Michele and I attended the annual Friends of Choice in Urban Schools Gala at the elegant Meridian House International. It is always a thrill for us to return to this setting because Michele’s first job out of college was at this historic home as she assisted running orientation programs about life in this country for foreign visitors to the United States.

After enjoying the company of some of our local charter school movement's finest leaders including Emily Lawson of D.C. Prep, Martha Cutts of Washington Latin, and Irasema Salcido the founder of Cesar Chavez, it was time for a few remarks from the parlor. Leading the night’s program was Mary Procter, a member of the FOCUS Board of Directors, and the woman who helped Donald Hense create the Friendship network of charters as his first chief of staff. She introduced the guests to the history of these alternative schools which was the perfect prelude to Robert Cane, FOCUS’s executive director, addressing the crowd.

Mr. Cane talked about the progress that charters have made since they first opened 18 years ago in the nation’s capital. He then spoke passionately about the struggles they have faced including accusations that they “were part of a conspiracy to gentrify the District,” that they controlled their student bodies by persuading difficult students not to attend, and that they were draining money that belonged to the traditional schools. The battle has included threats to place a moratorium on their number.

But the biggest hurdle these schools have experienced, asserted Mr. Cane, had to do with attempts to restrict their autonomy. These have included efforts to have each charter use the same reading program, “impose uniform truancy and disciplinary policies,” to have each school subscribe to uniform values, and to mandate curriculum around financial and environmental literacy.

Mr. Cane then went on to speak about the endless data that charters are required to supply to government and non-governmental bodies. He informed us that this has caused schools to have to hire compliance officers to satisfy all of the demands for information. He said that his group is now fighting legislation that would allow the government to request any information from any school for any reason. But Mr. Cane warned against this effort by providing a recent quotation from California Governor Jerry Brown when he was speaking about another matter. “There’s a tendency to totalism, total information, and once you have total information you’re making it easier for total control.”

New encroachments to charter school autonomy are coming, according to the FOCUS executive director, from the controlled choice movement which is trying to have the government statistically engineer who gets to go to a particular school. In addition, the recent efforts by the Gray Administration to update school boundaries include the notion of have having fixed feeder arrangements between DCPS and charter schools. I would add that at least one leading candidate for Mayor is already calling for charters to provide a neighborhood admission preference.

The bottom line for Mr. Cane was that all of these attempts at restricting freedom take away from charters efforts to provide a quality education for all children who need one. He concluded by pointing out astutely that the “discontinuity between the charter schools and the school system is the very thing that enables charter schools to be charter schools. The idea that central planning of any kind should be applied to the charter schools is in some ways more frightening than any moratorium on chartering.”

FOCUS, Mr. Cane added, will continue its drive to protect charters school independence. With that comment, he thanked the large audience for their support. It was then off to dancing to the beautiful music of the Glenn Pearson Orchestra.