THE BLOG
11/24/2014 12:15 pm ET Updated Jan 21, 2015

D.C. as Unlikely Ed Role Model

Co-authored with Andrew J. Rotherham

A decade ago, the debate about Washington D.C.'s public schools turned on school vouchers. How many students in the city's beleaguered schools should get a lifeline out and how many national Democrats would break ranks and support vouchers? As a new report released last Friday makes clear, the questions now are how fast can the city's booming public charter school sector grow and how quickly -- not if -- the city's traditional public schools can improve as well.

How D.C. went from punchline to touchstone in a relatively short period of time is an important question. Education advocates are always ready to hop planes to Finland and Singapore, but America's capital city offers some lessons closer to home.

There are two reasons behind Washington's unexpected improvement (unexpected because for years, there was a consensus that D.C., considering the generous per-student spending, was probably the worst-run school district in the country). And they are reasons other cities might want to study because D.C. is not an educational snowflake. What's working there is portable.

First, the evidence is clear that America's most dysfunctional urban school districts stand no chance of improving without leaning on high performing charter schools.

In D.C., about half of the city's public school students now attend charters. Data released last week shows that the best charters are growing and the worst are closing because parents aren't choosing them or they're being closed by city authorities.

Those low performers either get shut down or taken over by better charters, and a very public ranking system leads parents to make better choices about which charter to pick. Currently, one-third of D.C. charter students are enrolled in the top charters.

This is a credit to the way D.C. authorizes and manages its charters and is a black mark on other jurisdictions - like Ohio, for instance - that are not yet as serious about charter quality as they are about expansion.

The fact that troubled urban districts must now lean on charters is a byproduct of two decades of toxic education politics. Both superintendents and teacher union leaders have resisted real change, which means the best that most traditional urban schools can hope for is either holding steady or making tiny improvements. Charters in D.C., by contrast, have been subject to a tough winnowing process: Perform or perish.

School districts such as New York City, where a new mayor and schools chancellor appear determined to both resist top charters and, more importantly, ignore the lessons learned from the successes they have with low-income minority students, are likely to pay a price.

That points to the second lesson of Washington: Leadership matters, and despite the happy talk about "collaboration," improving large, dysfunctional and politically controlled urban school systems means some acrimony is almost inevitable. In D.C.'s case it was the bombastic Michelle Rhee who laid the foundation for today's improvements -- improvements clear from federal data showing that despite lagging problems, D.C. is the fastest improving urban school district.

Rhee made hard decisions about personnel, performance evaluations, and right-sizing a school district that couldn't afford to keep operating half-empty schools. She cleaned out no-show employees, parasitic vendors, and other drags on the system. Every one of those decisions antagonized some adult constituency or another. Usually that's a deal-breaker or results in weak half-measures. Washington was an exception.

Rhee was certainly not the long-term leader for the city's schools, but she was the right leader at the right time. Other cities can hire leaders with a different style than the notoriously combative Rhee but there is no evidence they can attain dramatic improvements without the same hard decisions.

Sadly, failing urbanized school systems are all too common. From large rust belt cities to smaller urbanized towns, these pockets of failure persist -- mostly because political leaders are too feckless to make the hard decisions. Washington's example shows that there is no way around those decisions but there is a payoff at the end -- for the students these systems are supposed to serve in the first place.

Andrew J. Rotherham is a co-founder and partner at Bellwether Education and executive editor of RealClearEducation.com. Richard Whitmire is the author most recently of On the Rocketship: How Top Charter Schools are Pushing the Envelope.

(This commentary first appeared in Real Clear Education)