Of all the statistics cited by Examiner reporter Lisa Gartner to document the increase in student enrollment in the Washington region's public schools for the 2012-2013 school year, one stands out. While 1.4 percent more students enrolled in DC Public Schools, 11 percent more students signed up for the city's public charter schools -- the largest enrollment surge of any system in the metropolitan area.
So during the District's largest increase in public school enrollment in 45 years, about 85 percent of the new students (3,457) chose to attend charter schools rather than enter the centralized, traditional public system. Charter schools are attractive to parents because they are free to choose their own policies and curriculum, adopt innovations such as longer school days, and they are not hamstrung by contracts with the Washington Teachers Union, which opposed their existence from Day One. Students at charters -- most of which serve low-income neighborhoods and have a greater percentage of black and Hispanic students -- have reading and math proficiency rates 10 and 20 percent higher (respectively) than those of students in the traditional public system.
Charter schools are not only accepted by the public, but they have in fact become the preferred educational option. Charter schools now educate 43 percent of D.C.'s public school students. It seems only a matter of time before charters exceed DCPS in total enrollment.
Perhaps anticipating that eventuality, Mayor Vincent Gray recently announced that the District has finally agreed to use $7 million in unspent funds from its 2012 operating budget to pay for charter school facilities that are currently covered by federal funds.
The city has long dragged its feet on fulfilling its legal obligation to support charter facilities. For years, it has failed to give them first access to empty school buildings, even though this is required by law. This better-late-than-never infusion of city money will free up an equal amount that the charter schools can use on other crucial needs.
But the capital funding gap between DCPS and charter schools still remains unacceptably high. The District currently spends about $6,000 per student on construction and renovation of DCPS facilities, but charter schools receive only about half that amount to cover their leases and mortgages.
When charter students finally outnumber students enrolled in DCPS, this unfair system will make even less sense than it does now.