Viewpoint: School autonomy, not standardization, works

The historic Franklin School is located at 13th and K streets NW. (Susann Shin/The Current/February 2017)

Public schools in the District of Columbia begin the new year with a controversy still raging from the old.

Proposals by At-Large D.C. Council member David Grosso to impose a ban on public school suspensions and expulsions for “minor offenses” were put forward in draft legislation. This ignited a storm before the holidays as they would impinge on the autonomy of the District’s charter schools, which educate 46 percent of all D.C. public school students and of D.C. Public Schools (DCPS), the traditional public school system.

The idea behind the council member’s move is to encourage public schools to invest more in “restorative justice” approaches to discipline problems as an alternative to more traditional methods that involve excluding students from school, thereby potentially disrupting their education. School leaders – each public charter school is its own local education authority – and the leadership of DCPS wish to continue to pioneer and experiment with various restorative justice approaches, but value the flexibility to do this in ways that suit their circumstances.

District charter schools are publicly-funded, tuition-free and open to all D.C.-resident students, but are operationally independent of DCPS and of the D.C. Council and government. Charters are authorized on a time-limited basis and held to a high standard by D.C.’s Public Charter School Board, whose members are appointed by the city’s mayor. The chancellor of DCPS also is appointed by the mayor, as is the deputy mayor for education. As such, the D.C. Council does not have a policy role.

At the heart of this debate are two different visions of how to arrive at the values and outcomes that we all want to see in our public schools. Everyone agrees that we want academics, school culture, and teacher and student safety to be strong. The question is whether centralization and standardization can deliver this or if autonomy and diversity represent the best way forward.

Public charter schools are predicated upon the idea that operational independence will deliver better results as local knowledge of their unique circumstances is greater and school leaders’ investment in getting it right is higher – charters are funded according to student enrollment. The philosophy behind the District’s public charter school reform is that the ensuing diversity of approaches is more likely than a central office to produce best practices that can then be shared.

This rejection of the centralization and standardization which governed public education in the District until the first charters opened is enshrined in the 1995 D.C. School Reform Act that established them. DCPS is 212 years old and up until that point – through slavery, segregation, desegregation and Home Rule – had a monopoly on public education. Such monopolies applied throughout the nation until the first state charter school law passed in the early 1990s.

Standardization’s great indictment before this reform was that it didn’t work well enough for enough students. Particularly in urban America, and especially in the District, the centralized approach produced sky-high dropout rates, chronically unsafe schools, abysmal academics and whole generations of children left totally unprepared for the adult world. By the mid-1990s, one third of District adults were functionally illiterate; half in D.C.’s most disadvantaged wards.

Neglect’s long shadow was sufficient for policymakers to accept that the one-size-fits-all approach had not worked, especially for the most vulnerable children. The result today is a thriving public education sector – in its eighth year of consecutive enrollment increase after decades of decline – in which different educational programs and philosophies are implemented based on local knowledge and circumstances while all public schools are measured by standardized metrics.

Holding charters and the DCPS chancellor accountable for improving on-time high-school graduation rates; standardized tests; school attendance and the like, while allowing them operational autonomy has yielded strong results. Not only have these academic metrics improved, but suspensions and expulsions also are falling as schools seek out new approaches.

Legislative mandates prevent schools from learning what works best for themselves and from others, including between DCPS and charters. Schools have knowledge of their students and neighborhoods that the center can never absorb. Trial and error in D.C.’s changing, but still starkly divided landscape – the old way notably failed communities with the least education and opportunities – enables schools to utilize that local knowledge and adapt to serve students better. In the case of charters, it is backed up by parental choice.

Based on more wisdom than the center can command, school autonomy makes schools and students stronger.

Dr. Ramona Edelin is executive director of the D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools.