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Courtesy of Capital City Public Charter School
The day after Election Day, students at Capital City Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., ran 'equity day,' based around themes ranging from identity to living with a single parent. 'Just being able to let it all out … releases a lot of tension and it just brightens up the room,' says Marvin, a high-school senior who led a discussion group that day with Hispanic peers.

Robust school choice and strong public schools – can US have both?

Cities with many charter schools – like Washington and Cleveland – are finding tension but also collaboration between public schools and school choice alternatives. Part 1 of 3.

Believe it or not, there is a middle ground.

​The school choice debate has been painted in the starkest terms by partisans on both sides – especially during the contentious confirmation of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. But the reality on the ground is far different.

Not every city that embraces school choice has abandoned its public schools, and not every person with qualms about ​that embrace ​is in the pocket of teachers unions.

It feels like a high-stakes moment in American education, with a lot riding on the question: Is it possible for robust parental choice and robust public school systems to coexist?

For many of the people currently occupying the middle ground in the choice debates, there’s still much to learn before the nation can fully answer that question. Across the United States, the ​choice is playing out in vastly different ways – and starting to yield lessons. Some 5 percent of US children attended public charter schools in 2013-14, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, while less than 1 percent participate in private school choice programs.

With states now more empowered to come up with their own accountability systems under a new federal civil rights law known as the Every Student Succeeds Act, and with a new Education secretary who is enthusiastic about promoting choice, that experimentation is only likely to expand. How that plays out will have potentially long-term consequences for the future.

New Orleans has long been in the spotlight for its near-total conversion from a traditional school district to a collection of schools run autonomously as public charters. Lawrence – the first school district in Massachusetts history to be placed in receivership – is in the midst of an impressive turnaround, the result, ​in part, of forging cooperation between its charters and public schools. In cities from Cleveland – which has about one-third of its students in charters – to Washington, D.C. – which has about 45 percent – there’s a mix of tension and collaboration between the two.

Much of that friction ​comes down to the details.

The effect of charter school choices “depends an awful lot on the details of the regulations” set by states, says Richard Murnane, an economist at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Mass.

Massachusetts, for instance, which does well in international comparisons of educational achievement, has regulations “much more strict than states such as Michigan and Arizona, and they are focused predominantly in communities that are low-income and have troubled conventional schools,” he says.

Michigan, where many policies favored by Secretary DeVos have been implemented, has been widely cited by critics for its lack of regulation and the fact that it has, at more than 80 percent, far more for-profit charter schools than any other state.

​​School choice advocates are far more likely to point to Florida as a possible model, with its combination of charters and vouchers and scholarships that allow more students to attend private schools.

“When you have millions of children to do better by,” the “boutique” strategy of a state like Massachusetts “won’t get you far,” says Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. States trying to grow a large sector of charter schools have had some “bumps in the road,” he says, but “reasonable people can argue about whether that’s a good or bad trade-off.”

Collaboration in Washington, D.C. 

Cecily Miles Slater says she is grateful to have choices for her children. The granddaughter of educators, the African-American mom moved her family back to Washington from Los Angeles in part because of the robust climate of school choice. Her son attended Capital City Public Charter School, and her daughter is now a third-grader there. She particularly likes the school's diversity and how it "really fosters the kids' development."

Capital City opened in 2000 as Washington’s first parent-founded charter, and was located and designed to attract a diverse population. The school infuses values that many people associate with the ideal of public education, such as inclusiveness, civic engagement, and equity.

“It was always about much more than starting a school for their own kids,” says Karen Dresden, head of the pre-K-12 school. Ms. Dresden says she and many other education leaders in D.C. look beyond their own schools when it comes to pushing for equity. There are ongoing conversations, she says, about how education policies “will impact our most vulnerable students” citywide.

Take the school’s two student-run equity days – based around themes ranging from identity to living with a single parent. This year, one of those fell – by coincidence – the day after the election.

“Just being able to let it all out … releases a lot of tension and it just brightens up the room,” says Marvin, a high-school senior who led a discussion group that day with Hispanic peers. Feeling so supported makes them want to stay in school, he and some classmates say.

Capital City’s population is 50 percent Hispanic/Latino, 37 percent black, 7 percent white, 2 percent Asian, and 4 percent multiracial. Seventy-two percent of the students are economically disadvantaged. That’s somewhat more diverse than the average D.C. public school, and is an exception to the trend of charters here being somewhat more segregated than district schools, according to a recent report from the UCLA Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles.

If school choice policies are shaped differently and coupled with strong civil rights policies, it “could give D.C. families a choice that has never been present in most of the city – strong schools, well-integrated by race and income, where students … learn skills essential to living and working … [in a] multiracial city,” the Civil Rights Project notes.

Choice has become increasingly woven into the fabric of D.C.’s education, and has begun to spark collaboration – such as a new program at Georgetown University in which principals from both the charter and the traditional sectors will learn together and visit one another’s schools.

For her part, Ms. Slater says she hopes the ability of families to access good options will only continue to grow. Like most charter systems, D.C.’s operates on a lottery.

“The challenge is that, in order to put your child in the lottery, you have to understand the lottery system,” she says. “But there’s been a lot of outreach efforts made to families that … aren’t doing the research that middle- and upper-class parents are doing.”

A bridge in Cleveland 

For Melissa Marini Švigelj-Smith, a parent, teacher, and activist in Cleveland, this moment in American education boils down to whether research will guide what happens in schools, or whether schools will continue to be graded through accountability systems created “by politicians who have no idea what goes into educating a child.”

She and many other educators are concerned that the term "failing schools" is often used to undermine public educatioon and attempt to privatize what should be a public good.

As a teacher in a public high school, she felt that the “test and punish” system verged on “educational malpractice,” she says. “Failure should never be the name of a monster hovering over a school building making children afraid of how they will do on a test,” she told the school board a few years ago.

Ms. Švigelj-Smith, who now teaches in a juvenile detention center, says she’s not against accountability, but wants it defined differently. And she’s concerned by the degree to which proponents of market forces influence education in the state.

“Public schools are responsible to the community,” she says. The idea that children are like products is a “flawed premise.”

“If people want choice, fine, but … make sure that everybody else who doesn’t have choice has equal public schools and resources," Švigelj-Smith says.

Many people are building bridges in Cleveland to try to do just that. A coalition of teachers, foundations, and bipartisan public officials formed The Cleveland Plan for Transforming Schools in 2012. It has given principals more control over budgets so they can address the specific needs of their students. The district has ramped up early education, and parents can access quality reports as they try to navigate school choices.

In 2015, the city received support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for collaborative work between the district and charter schools. Graduation rates have risen – from 52 percent in 2010 to 66 percent in 2014 – and voters saw enough other gains to approve a tax levy in November to fund the plan for four more years.

Cleveland still has a long way to go, however. Only 15 percent of students who took the ACT college entry test, for instance, were meeting the college-ready benchmark in 2015. On the most recent state report card, Cleveland got all Fs, and about 40 of its schools were among the bottom 5 percent in Ohio for academic performance.

Those are the kind of statistics that people cite when they talk about “failing schools.” For her part, Švigelj-Smith counters that the real “failing school” was Ohio’s largest online charter school, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow. ECOT’s four-year graduation rate was 39.6 percent for the class of 2015, and an audit found it collected money from the state from many more students than were regularly logging on to its online classes. The scandal contributed to the passage of a tighter charter-school accountability law that took effect in the state last year.

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More broadly, part of the problem with the heavy use of the "failing" label is that “expectations of what schools can accomplish are too high” when it comes to tackling income inequality in the US, says Isabel Sawhill, a senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “It doesn’t mean schools shouldn’t be trying and can’t be part of helping people climb the ladder of opportunity…. But we have to be careful not to think they can do the whole job.”

Parental choice is not a panacea, she says, but experiments should continue, “with lots of attention to what the effects are,” she says. “Anyone who talks about charters and choice without standards and accountability is misguided.”

Part 2: Three myths holding back America's public schools

Coming Thursday: Four areas where there is agreement on how to make progress

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