Learning from D.C.–and What D.C. Can Learn From Other Places?

Richard Whitmire, writing in the Washington Post, hails Washington, D.C. as one of the nation’s “education hotspots.” As someone who’s been deeply engaged in D.C. education for the past five years, my first response is “duh.”

Seriously, though, it’s great to see Whitmire helping a broader audience to understand how improvements in both charter school quality and DCPS over the past seven years are paying off in improved student learning outcomes and options for families in the District (particularly appreciate the shout out to the work of D.C.’s authorizer, the Public Charter School Board, on which I serve). I think that Whitmire may be offering an overly rosy picture of the potential for charter-DCPS collaboration, though. To be clear, I’d like nothing better than to see the charter sector and DCPS work together more closely and collaboratively to provide a seamless and easily accessible range of quality school options for all D.C. children and their families. Recent developments like the MySchoolDC Common Lottery and joint equity reports on DCPS and charter schools illustrate the progress being made on DCPS-charter collaboration. But there are also real practical challenges and conflicting interests here, as well as some deep tensions around balancing greater coordination with respect for charter autonomy. Ignoring these tensions doesn’t make them go away, and efforts for more robust collaboration must engage them. Whitmire also neglects the potential fragility of D.C.’s progress to date in the face of upcoming political changes. While a great deal has been accomplished, decisions by the next mayor or council leaders could undermine some of that progress. That said, the ideas Whitmire puts forward are intriguing, including a provocative suggestion that current progress could ultimately threaten some of the District’s tony private schools by creating options that appeal to middle class and affluent parents, as well as low-income families.

–Sara Mead

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