THE BLOG
01/28/2015 10:56 am ET Updated Mar 30, 2015

Charter Schools Vital to DC's Educational Renaissance

By Nina Rees and Scott Pearson

When First Lady Michelle Obama visited Capital City Public Charter School last month, she met Gerson Quinteros, a graduate of Capital City who now attends the University of the District Columbia. Gerson told Mrs. Obama that when he came to the United States from El Salvador at nine years old, he didn't know English and was often bullied. But when he arrived at Capital City, he was welcomed with open arms, treated the same as every other kid, and given the support and encouragement to blossom as a student.

Gerson is one of the millions of students across America who have benefited from the educational options made available by charter schools, which we celebrate this week as part of National School Choice Week.

Public charter schools have taken firm root in Washington, DC. This year, for the first time since charter schools were introduced to the District 18 years ago, more public schools in the city are run by charters than by DC Public Schools (DCPS). What started as an experiment in educational innovation has now become a mainstay for District families, with 44 percent of public school students exercising the choice to attend a charter school. And a recent report from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools found that DC has the healthiest charter school movement in the country, based on measures of growth, quality, and innovation.

All parents hope their children follow in Gerson's footsteps and attend college. Or they may be like the parents of Daniel, a special-needs student at AppleTree, a preschool charter program in DC. (We've changed Daniel's real name to protect his anonymity.) Daniel's parents worked with AppleTree teachers and school leaders to ensure he received individualized support that's allowed him to get comfortable in the classroom, improve his communication skills, and enjoy going to school.

The proliferation of charter schools in the District - there are now 112 - has given more parents the opportunity to find a school that meets their child's needs.

Some people have misconceptions about charters, mistakenly thinking that they're private schools, or that they only take the best students, or that they get more money than other public schools. In reality, DC's charter schools are public, tuition-free, open to all and non-selective. Their students tend to perform higher than the citywide average year-after-year. Students who come from disadvantaged families or have special needs do particularly well at charter schools relative to their peers at other schools.

The DC Public Charter School Board (PCSB) oversees the District's charter schools, with the mission of ensuring quality and choice for all students. Ensuring quality means that before a charter school is allowed to open, the nonprofit proposing to run it must say - in writing - how it will improve DC's educational landscape. If it fails to meet its goals, it is held accountable. That's why 12 charters had to close in the last two years alone.

In return for meeting high standards, charters also have flexibility. Freed from bureaucratic rules and procedures, charters are able to quickly adjust their curriculum, introduce new programs, or hire teachers who are masters in their field. By design, public charter schools are more nimble and innovative than traditional public schools, giving parents more choices to find the best match for their child.

To help parents and the community make those choices, PCSB ranks all charter schools as Tier 1, 2 or 3, with Tier 1 being the best. Proudly, 21% of public charter schools today are Tier 1, and more and more parents are enrolling their children in these high-performing schools each year.

It's also worth noting that, unlike neighborhood-based DC public schools, charters are citywide schools. About half of charter students attend a school outside their ward. That's why many charter schools are more racially and economically diverse than traditional DC public schools.

PCSB and DCPS compete to be the best, but also collaborate to provide better information to parents through the joint DC Education Festival at the Convention Center and to streamline the admissions process through "My School DC," the common lottery. Charter and DCPS school leaders often work together to improve their practices and to learn from each other.

This year, PCSB is focusing on several initiatives to take charter school quality to the next level. This includes preparing to meet the demands of the new Common Core assessments; improving services for students whose first language is not English; reducing out-of-school suspensions and expulsions, particularly in early childhood programs; and ensuring greater transparency in operations.

Charter schools have been a vital part of DC's educational renaissance, with total public school enrollment growing for the first time in 50 years. Not everything is perfect and there is still plenty of room for improvement, but DC parents and students are better off with two robust school systems challenging each other to keep getting better.

Nina Rees is the president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and Scott Pearson is the executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board.