front page - editorial archives  - search - community 

Charter schools aren’t the answer

(Published March 27, 2000)

The building that houses Paul Junior High School in Northwest Washington belongs to the people of the District of Columbia – all of us, not just those who currently attend classes there, their parents and the residents who work there.

Paul Junior High has never been declared to be surplus property. The school has been and continues to be an integral part of the D.C. public school system’s inventory of facilities. It is the neighborhood school for more than 700 children in grades 7, 8 and 9 who live primarily in Wards 4 and 5.

That’s why it’s so difficult to understand how we have reached the point at which the stewardship of Paul Junior High is being taken away from the public by the federally appointed financial control board – against the recommendation of our elected D.C. Board of Education, the appointed school trustees and the superintendent of our city’s public schools.

In fact, all except one member of the school trustees – an advisory body to the control board – recently resigned over their disagreement with the control board’s decision to hand over Paul Junior High to a charter school group.

Some parents and teachers claim their signatures were forged on the required petition of support for Paul’s conversion to a charter school, and the city’s inspector general has been asked to investigate the process.

Students attending the school are protesting the removal of their school from the traditional public school system – which means they must leave the system in order to stay at Paul. And parents of students who have expected promotion to attend Paul Junior High during the next few years say they object that no one ever asked their opinion of the proposed conversion to charter status.

We continually hear the growing number of charter schools in our city, now numbering more than 30, referred to as "public" schools. But the reality is that they are being funded with tax dollars provided by all D.C. taxpayers while, at the same time, city taxpayers lose virtually all control over how those tax dollars are spent.

And our superintendent of D.C. Public Schools, whom we pay $165,000 a year for her expertise in running our public schools, has no authority whatsoever over these "public" charter schools.

In fact, in the case of Paul Junior High, Principal Cecile Middleton – who is leading her school’s charter effort – appears to have worked her way into the enviable position of being able to thumb her nose at her current boss, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, without consequence if she so chooses. Is Paul just the beginning of a spate of "rogue" principals who will simply opt their schools out of the system when they disagree with authority? There is something seriously wrong with the law.

Call them what you like, but charter schools as currently structured here are hardly public schools. Plain and simple, they are privately controlled schools being funded by taxpayers who have no option of withholding their taxes from supporting these schools.

The convoluted system that has created these schools under separate – and sometimes conflicting – local and federal legislation gives the public no clear method of holding accountable the people who are spending our local tax dollars. And, make no mistake about it, those tax dollars are being taken away from our public schools.

"Public" charter schools, by divorcing themselves from the rest of the school system and banding together to provide joint services to charter schools only, aren’t even attempting to work within our public school system to improve it.

Charter schools – while maybe a laudable idea in a healthy school system – are tearing apart our public schools. We think the people who support "public" charter schools should show their claimed support for our public schools by truly becoming part of the public school system and using their time, energy, talents and financial resources to make our entire public school system exemplary – not just their own privately controlled "public" school.

Copyright 2000, The Common Denominator