CharterFolk Contributor, Ramona Edelin – Public Schooling in DC Before Chartering

Good morning, CharterFolk.

Today I am honored to share with you all an extraordinary column from Ramona H. Edelin, PhD.

As many of you are aware, Ramona served with great distinction as the Executive Director of the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools, and she has become Sr. Advisor to the newly formed DC Charter School Alliance. She has also agreed to serve as a founding Board Member of CharterFolk.

Recently, Ramona and I had a conversation about how charter opponents are trying to scapegoat charter schools for problems that charter schools did not create but are in fact a response to. It is a theme I explored in Why It’s Gotten Even Harder – The Establishment’s Strategy to Destroy Charter Schools.

And as it relates to public education, our society has developed a massive case of collective amnesia.  We cannot remember long enough to identify how a problem in public education came about three weeks ago, much less three decades ago, and charter schools have now been around for nearly 30 years. It makes conditions ripe for the Establishment to do in the 2020’s what it could never have done in the 1990s or 2000s: to create a new narrative that charter schools are not a response to the failings of the traditional public school system, but are the maker of those failings.

What’s the best way to defend ourselves against such nonsense?

Knowing our own history and sharing it compellingly so we can set the record straight.

And if there is anyone in charterland who knows our own history and who shares it compellingly, it is certainly Ramona Edelin. It’s why I couldn’t be happier than to publish her post today. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do, and I hope it stirs in you ideas about how you too can share the history of your local charter school movement so that we can set the record straight that charter schools are not the creators but are instead the solvers of many long-standing problems in public education.

Public Schooling in DC Before Chartering

Whom Do We Serve?

We can fail to ask the right questions, and thereby miss the entire point, if we do not begin the inquiry with an analysis of whom we serve.  In the District of Columbia, the overwhelming majority of students, from pre-K through Adults, are students of color from impoverished backgrounds.  As Chelsea Coffin of the DC Policy Center reports:

The majority of D.C.’s public school students are African American. In 2016-17, 68 percent of students were African American, 18 percent were Latino, 10 percent were white, and four percent identified as other. From 2014-15 to 2016-17, the proportion of African American students decreased by four percentage points and the proportion of Latino students increased by three percentage points (Office of the State Superintendent for Education 2015) and (Office of the State Superintendent for Education (OSSE) 2017). African American students are over-represented in public school enrollment given demographics of the school-age population…. (2018, Landscape of Diversity in D.C. Public Schools).[1] 

Historical Background and Context

Messaging from days gone by gives us a glimpse into the unabashed way in which educational excellence formed the very identity of African Americans who were fortunate enough to obtain it.

Charles Thomas, Teacher of Psychology, wrote:

The parents and patrons of Washington Normal School #2 [Miner Teachers College] can never lose sight of the fact that the school has a history of which the city may be proud, with which many of the best families are connected, and as a part of which some of its best citizens have been developed….The graduates of the normal school represent the cadets of an army against ignorance, superstition and vice in the adult society of coming years. (September 2, 1910. Chronology of the University of Columbia and Its Predecessor Institutions, 1851 -2009)

Loyalty to this vision and its reality persists.

Dunbar High School defied the odds and in the process changed America.  In the first half of the twentieth century, Washington DC’s Dunbar High was an academically elite public school, despite being racially segregated by law and existing at the mercy of racist congressmen who held the school’s purse strings.  The school’s well-educated teachers developed generations of high-achieving African Americans, groundbreakers that included the first black member of a presidential cabinet, the first black graduate of the US Naval Academy and the legal mastermind behind school desegregation.  Today, as with too many troubled urban public schools, the majority of Dunbar students struggle with reading and math.  But there is hope with the opening of a brand new $122 million facility that will bear the Dunbar name. (Paul Lawrence Dunbar High School website)

While it is difficult to pinpoint precisely when public schools in the District of Columbia began to decline, most would agree that there was at least a three-decades long slide that culminated in utter free fall by the early 1990s.  Student performance, the competency of the bureaucracy, the leadership of elected and appointed officials, the physical condition of the buildings and grounds, and the finances of the school system were at rock bottom.  Enrollment[2] in DCPS had dropped from 150,000 students in the 1960s to 80,000 in 1995.

Actually, the problem is centuries old, not decades. 

Washington’s unique status as a federal city has played out in often-tumultuous struggles over governance of the public schools. Congress created the school system in 1804, two years after the District of Columbia was established as a municipal government. Nearly six decades later, the city opened public schools for African-American children, separate from the system for whites.  (A Washington Post investigation, with interactive tools, multimedia, commentary and more… 

The Court ruling that DC’s segregated schools were unconstitutional came in the same year as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) with the Bolling v Sharpe decision. 

Since at least 1804, African American students, particularly those from impoverished backgrounds, have been denied equal access to educational opportunity in the nation’s capital, and today the race and income achievement gap in DC is the largest in the nation.

It should be noted that the DC teachers’ union has been functioning for 74 years.[3]

Failure and the Search for Solutions

By the 1990’s, it was clear that DC’s public school system was failing abysmally on all fronts.

According to the managers who were placed in control of the failed system:

By any basic category for evaluation — such as educational, managerial, financial, and physical safety — the school system has failed our children placing itself in a state of educational and operational crisis. Fundamental justice for the school children, their parents, and all the taxpayers and citizens who support and depend upon DCPS, requires a complete overhaul in governance structure and management systems. 

The catalog of the district’s failure, as documented by an independent report in 1996, [4] should have been criminal:

The Failures

The Authority’s [Control Board, see below] full report details the major failures of the DCPS. This summary highlights the unacceptable conditions that children face every day:

Education outcomes are well below the national norm. District students consistently lag behind the national averages and the averages of comparable urban school districts on the major exams that test competency and student achievement.

Education inequity persists. Students’ test scores in wards 7 and 8, the predominantly poorer areas of the city, have declined substantially while the more affluent wards of the District have remained stable.

Mismanagement undermines learning. The inability of DCPS to effectively implement long-term education and operational plans leaves students without teachers or classrooms, textbooks unordered or lost in warehouses, teachers untrained and uncertified, and students who are disabled without access. Additionally, poor resource allocation distorts priorities, ensuring that educational needs go unmet even when funds are available.

Unsafe environments disrupt learning. The much publicized case of schools failing to open on schedule last September, due to fire code violations, highlights the collapsing infrastructure of the public schools. The alarming condition of facilities leaves students exposed to discomfort and even to potential harm — boilers burst, roofs leak, firedoors stick, bathrooms crumble, and poor security permits unauthorized individuals to gain access, threatening the safety of students. Such conditions make it almost impossible to focus on the primary mission of educating the children.

Unacceptable service provision affects students. Poor contract management in the public schools has left an indelible mark on our children — who, among other things, have been forced to eat cold cereal for lunch and have been subjected to unqualified individuals operating school facilities….

(Photos from: Leaving Children Behind: The Underfunding of D.C. Public Schools Building Repair and Capital Budget Needs.

Families “voted with their feet” to leave the failed school system, when they could.  Even today, only about one-fourth of public school students attend their own neighborhood school and many if not most of these students live in the more affluent wards where the district schools are of high quality.  The super-majority of students attend out-of-boundary district schools, where rapid gentrification is changing the availability of these quality choices; “select” or magnet-like district schools that require students to meet certain criteria for admission; or charter schools. 

Urban legend has it that charter schools were “forced down the throats of District residents” but that is not the case.  In the search for solutions to the Government’s mandate to provide quality, mandatory, public education, the DCPS Superintendent, the DC Council, and the DC Mayor all decided a new approach was necessary.  Superintendent Franklin Smith proposed charter schools …

… and the DC Council passed enabling legislation in 1995 which was signed by Mayor Marion Barry and sent to the Congress for its required approval.  Because DC is “the last colony” – or, as many African Americans say, “the last plantation” – Congress let the District’s legislation lapse while it muddled through passage of its School Reform Act of 1995, much to the chagrin of local policymakers and many citizens.  Nevertheless, DC’s own charter school law was on the books of its Council (Legislature) first.

The stipulations of the School Reform Act are crystal clear:


Control. — A public charter school: (A) Shall exercise exclusive control over its expenditures, administration, personnel, and instructional methods, within the limitations imposed in this subchapter; and (B) Shall be exempt from District of Columbia statutes, policies, rules, and regulations established for the District of Columbia public schools by the Superintendent, Board of Education, Mayor, District of Columbia Council, or Authority, except as otherwise provided in the school’s charter or this subchapter.

When not just the public schools but the City itself faced near bankruptcy in 1996, Congress established the Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority, also known as the “control board,” which receivership effectively solidified local vitriol against both the Congress and, for many, charter schools.

The financial mastermind who managed the economy back into good standing was elected mayor. Anthony Williams won a Referendum to appoint four of the nine members of the Board of Education. In 2007, Mayor Adrian Fenty won Council approval of “mayoral control” with the passage of the Public Education Reform Amendment Act of 2007, without a Referendum. The local Board of Education that had existed from 1804 was abolished and the Mayor was given all its powers, creating a State Board of Education with broad policy as its purview.

Vision and Mission of Chartered Public Schools

Chartered public schools are intended to be laboratories where success models can be identified, tested, proven, then shared so that all students will benefit from their promising- and best-practices.  We want to ensure a quality public school education for every student!  Not enough investment has gone into the qualitative, not just quantitative, research and analysis that are required to answer the fundamental questions of What Works, For Whom, Under what Conditions?  But we do now have some excellent studies.  Josh Boots and his team at Empower K-12 identify Bold Performance award-winning schools on an annual basis.  These are “open enrollment schools that serve a high at-risk student population and have combined math and English language arts proficiency rates dramatically higher than similar schools”. ( )

True to their explicit Visions and Missions, to close the entrenched opportunity and achievement gaps that have plagued students of color from impoverished backgrounds,  many charter schools in DC “outperformed the traditional public schools in elementary and high school grades” as reported in this story from Forbes. 

These schools have improved proficiency, accelerated academic growth, and doubled high school graduation rates, in many stunningly successful examples.[6]  A very recent study accentuates the power of urban charter schools, in particular, to change the life trajectories of students of color.[7]

Another recent study …

… removes any remaining ambiguity, reporting that, “On average, students in [urban charter] schools — and black and Latino students in  particular — learn more than their peers in traditional public schools and go on to have greater success in college and beyond.”  Everyone who cares about the academic and life success of students of color should support charter schools and the governance model of chartering – site-based management; autonomy in exchange for accountability; control over budgets, hiring and firing, and instructional methodology – which have finally produced authentic solutions to the centuries-old problem of crippling race and class discrimination.

This is what we want.  Chartering enables educators with vision to establish their own missions, methods, and measures and then give it absolutely all they have, to fulfill them. When they falter, they should be supported to continuously improve.  When they then still fail, they should be closed.  When they succeed, they can be, quite literally, life savers. Mandatory public schooling requires no less!  


[1] See also: Separate and Unequal: The State of the District of Columbia Public Schools Fifty Years After Brown and Bolling A Parents United for the D.C. Public Schools Civic Leader Advisory Committee Report March 2005;, Chapter 2 Demographic Characteristics of the District and Metro Area; and A Study of Enrollment Projections for D.C.’s Public Schools: Assuring Accuracy and Transparency Conducted by Cooper; Comparative Strategies, 21st Century School Fund, and Urban Institute for the Office of the District of Columbia Auditor, September 28, 2018.

[2] DCPS reached its lowest enrollment in 2010 with 45,000 students.  In 2018, the combined enrollment of public and charter schools was 92,994. (Washington Post, Perry Stein, November 7, 2018) According to the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, “The share of DC students enrolled in public charter schools has nearly doubled since the 2005-06 school year.  Ten years ago 18,000 students were enrolled in a public charter school, just one-third of the 55,000 students in DCPS.  In 2015-16, the 39,000 students in public charter schools was much closer to the 48,000 students in a DC Public School, reflecting more than a doubling of charter enrollment and a drop in DCPS enrollment. As a result, enrollment in DC public charter schools jumped from 25 percent of all DC students a decade ago to 45 percent in 2016. The growth rates of traditional public schools and public charter schools have narrowed greatly in recent years. From 2005-06 to 2010-00, public charter enrollment grew 65 percent while DCPS enrollment fell 17 percent. In the most recent five years, by contrast, the charter sector grew 32 percent compared with 6 percent for DCPS.” (A Changing Landscape: Examining How Public Charter School Enrollment is Growing in DC, by DC Fiscal Policy Institute, April 28, 2016).  The number of students enrolled in public schools in the District of Columbia increased for the 11th consecutive year, reaching 94,603, according to preliminary data released by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE). There are 43,556 PK-12 and adult students enrolled in public charter schools in the 2019-20 school year. (DCPCSB)


[4] Children in Crisis: Executive Summary, District of Columbia Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority, November 12, 1996, as reported in the Washington Post

[5] (See: Sarah Livingston, A Short History of D.C. Public Schools; and The Evolution and Revolution of DC Charter Schools: A Transformation of Public Education in Washington, DC, (2014) by Josephine C. Baker, the first chair of the DC Public Charter School Board and the executive director through the first 14 years of the sector’s development.)

[6] “Dozens of studies of public charter schools have reached a consistent conclusion: their presence benefits disadvantaged students who attend them as well as the students who don’t.  Studies show substantial gains in academic achievement, especially for lower-income, and minority students, amounting to weeks, or even months, of additional classroom learning each year.” (Manhattan Institute, Issues 2020: Charter Schools Boost Results for Disadvantaged Students and Everyone Else)

[7] Be sure to also check out a new blog on the report findings by Christy Wolfe, vice president for policy and planning at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, titled, What a New Harvard Study Shows About Student Performance in Charter Schools.

Five key findings from the report include:

  1. Accelerated Achievement Trends at Charter Schools. From 2005 to 2017, charter students in 4th and 8th grade made greater gains on reading and math tests than students in district schools, with 8th grade charter students gaining two-thirds of a year of math learning, on average.
  2. Outsized Gains for Black Students in Charter Schools. From 2005 to 2017, Black students at charter schools made greater gains on reading and math tests than their peers at district schools. White students also made greater gains at charters, while Latino and Asian students made comparable gains in charters as in district schools.
  3. An Additional Half-Year of Learning for Charter School Students of Low Socio-economic Status. Compared to their district-school peers, the lowest-income 8th grade charter school students made more progress on reading and math tests from 2005 to 2017, with a difference equivalent to an additional half-year of learning. Eighth-grade charter students from the highest-income families also made more progress on tests than their counterparts attending district schools.
  4. Charter Schools Catch Up to District Schools on National Tests. In 2017, students attending public charter schools earned similar or higher scores in reading and similar scores in math as students in district schools on NAEP in both 4th and 8th grades. That came after 12 years of faster academic progress at charters, which lagged average district-school performance in 2005.
  5. Charter School Gains Across the Country. Charter schools in the Midwest and Northeast regions of the U.S. showed the biggest gains in reading and math test scores relative to their district-school peers from 2005 to 2017. Adjusting for demographic differences, accelerated improvement in the Northeast amounts to about two-thirds of a year’s worth of learning. Charter and district students in the West made similar gains.