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Separate but equal?
(Published November 14, 2005)

Next year marks the 10-year anniversary of the first charter schools opening in the District of Columbia, a milestone that calls for re-evaluation of their intended purposes and the goals on which these so-called "public" schools were founded.

As that milestone approaches, 64 charter schools are operating in the District under 52 charters that allow "expansion campuses." About 19,000 D.C. children are enrolled in charter schools, most of which were granted their charters by the appointed D.C. Public Charter School Board, a publicly funded body created by Congress to provide an alternative to the partially elected and publicly funded D.C. Board of Education.

Meanwhile, the D.C. Public Schools system under the weighty oversight of the Board of Education, D.C. City Council and, by virtue of the U.S. Constitution, the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate continues to be directly responsible for educating about 62,000 students, the bulk of the District's children. This duty is being performed on a daily basis in more than 140 aged and dilapidated buildings where, for the most part, the majority of D.C. pet owners probably would hesitate to board their dogs. Yet, we consign children to them every day.

Tax dollars finance both "public charter schools" and what have come to be called "traditional public schools," largely by use of a formula based on the number of students enrolled at individual schools in October of each school year. The funding formula pulls tax dollars away from the traditional public schools, leaving them little recourse but to operate with less while needing to redirect some of their precious resources into lobbying against losing more funds.

Charter schools are not required to comply with all of the laws that traditional public schools must follow, including those that govern who is qualified to teach children and which private contractors receive public funds. Charter schools themselves are not publicly owned; they are owned and operated by nonprofit organizations.

That description of the state of public education in the nation's capital oversimplifies a process that often seems to be bent on confusing members of the public, rather than educating them. The system shouldn't be so confusing to parents who simply want what's best for their children. Unfortunately, they are bucking powerful special interest groups that ultimately care more about creating poster children for their political causes than teaching Johnny and Jane how to read and become productive citizens.

Comparisons of standardized test scores show that charter schools are failing to make significant progress over traditional public schools to improve academic achievement among the District's children. And getting students admitted to colleges, touted as a measure of "success" by charter school advocates, says nothing about how well these schools have prepared children for life on their own. Is anyone tracking how many of those college-bound students actually enroll, complete degree programs and ultimately get a job? Self-sufficiency, rather than college admission, is the true measure of success.

Beyond claims of charter school success, there's a larger and quite troubling question that the public needs to ask about the goals of the charter school movement. Fifty years after the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision ended side-by-side publicly funded school systems that were "separate but equal," why are so many people trying to recreate them?

Copyright 2005 The Common Denominator