DC’s strong public charter school law, the D.C. School Reform Act of 1995 provides an unusual amount of autonomy to the District’s public charter schools. Under the School Reform Act, each of these schools is a non-profit corporation governed by a board of trustees, not part of the DC government or of the school system. The law gives these boards of trustees “exclusive control” over their instruction, expenditures, administration, and personnel. And DC laws, regulations, or policies purporting to apply to both DCPS and the charters are, by law, inapplicable to the latter.
More than any other factor, it is the DC charters’ broad autonomy that has led to their success. At present, 43% of all DC public school students attend charters and thousands are on waiting lists. This enormous popularity is understandable: charter students outperform their school system peers on the DC CAS and charter school graduation rates are dramatically higher as well.
In spite of this success and the School Reform Act’s unambiguous protections against government interference, the DC council, the city administration, the “state” superintendent’s office, and the charter board regularly seek to impose their notions of good schooling on the charter schools. Laws are introduced and regulations promulgated purporting to direct charter schools to adopt prescribed student policies, teach things in a certain way, and spend their funding on specified items during a specified timeframe. “Best practices” become charter board mandates. And accountability hysteria leads to school system-like reporting requirements.
FOCUS has worked diligently for over 15 years to prevent the school systemization of DC’s charter schools, maintaining constant vigilance over the government and charter board and rapidly organizing charter school leaders, parents, and supporters to oppose illegal and otherwise unwise efforts to diminish the charters’ autonomy. These efforts continue today, as the government continues to pay scant attention to the autonomous status of the charter schools.