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Worried about the future of public education in D.C.

I'm an optimistic person. You would have to be to advocate school choice as a solution to the seemingly intractable problems associated with public education in the inner city. I remember back in the dark days before charter schools became popular I would suggest that if parents were given the freedom to decide where their children could learn we could fix the schools. People would simply laugh. "How can poor uneducated adults pick a quality school for their kids?" they would sarcastically reply. But when the doors opened allowing students to be taught in an alternative system we learned a new term when it came to Pre-Kindergarten to high school public education and that word was "waitlist."

After almost two decades of struggle that has left many of us reformers physically and mentally exhausted we have finally made real progress in the District of Columbia. 44 percent of all public school students, over 36,000 kids, now attend a charter school. They number 60 on 106 campuses. Some of the highest performing charter operators in the country such as Democracy Prep, Rocketship, and Harmony are opening franchises here. We are beginning to see many of our schools, such as D.C. Prep, Achievement Prep, KIPP, Thurgood Marshall Academy, and Friendship, for the first time in history closing the academic achievement gap between blacks and whites.

The exodus of families from the traditional schools forced them to improve, as predicted by school choice theorists. Mr. Fenty orchestrated a Mayoral takeover of DCPS. He appointed Michelle Rhee as Chancellor, who began some of the extremely difficult transformations needed to strengthen the regular schools such as an end to tenure-protected teaching positions and implementing a pedagogical evaluation system tied partially to student standardized test scores. Kaya Henderson, who initiated many of these changes while working under Miss Rhee, replaced her as the head of DCPS with the election of Vincent Gray. Her tireless energy to bring positive advancements to her schools have so far resulted in the second year in a row of enrollment increases. A rise in academic performance for underprivileged children is sure to follow.

While many were concerned that the Mayor would not have the stomach to continue reforms started by his predecessor he has demonstrated that they would proceed at a new unimpeded pace. He has steadfastly stood by the efforts of Ms. Henderson. His appointment of Abigail Smith as Deputy Mayor for Education has resulted in a new norm for turning shuttered DCPS facilities over to charters. Her Adequacy Study for the first time detailed in print by the government the illegal funding of the traditional schools outside of the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula and included recommendations for making charters whole.

There is also, and this is no less significant than everything else I have mentioned, a new cooperation between charters and the traditional schools. There are numerous examples of this such as the recently developed common lottery and the D.C. Education Festival, a public education fair that for the first time included institutions from both school systems.

No one can underestimate how important these steps have been to all of the stakeholders in public education in the nation's capital. But now a new cloud hangs over Mayor Gray, one that could certainly end his time in office. I'm terribly concerned that the progress we have recently enjoyed will then begin to recede. Without Mr. Gray there may be no more Chancellor Henderson and Ms. Smith will be replaced.

Therefore, in order to protect the hard fought reforms that we have achieved I think we should call for candidates running for the city's highest offer to dedicate themselves to not turning back. They should commit upfront to maintaining the policies that are already in place. The recommendations of the Adequacy Study should go forward. Charters need to be able to maintain the independence that has allowed academic achievement to flourish. Closed DCPS buildings have to be part of the solution to the charter school facility problem. Finally, Kaya Henderson must be allowed to finish the work she has started.

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