DC Charters 101

A guide to understanding DC charter schools

Two Rivers fourth-grade students carrying in seedlings to plant at Kingman Islands as part of field work to help restore the ecology in and around the Anacostia River. Photo: Kristen Franklin, Storybox Photography.

During the 2018-19 school year, 66 public charter schools operated on 123 campuses and served more than 43,000 students in grades PK3-12. More than 47 percent of all public school students in Washington, DC attend public charter schools.

So, why are these publicly funded schools, serving nearly half of DC students, so misunderstood? Well – as with so many things in education – it’s complicated.

Charter schools are public schools. DC charter schools are funded by the same tax dollars and held accountable by the Office of the State Superintendent (OSSE) on the same STAR Framework as DC Public Schools (DCPS). Charter schools do not have enrollment boundaries and are open to all District residents. Every family whose child attends a charter school actively chooses to do so.

Charter schools are accountable to the public for results outlined in their charter, the contract between the school and the DC Public Charter School Board, the authorizer whose members are appointed by the Mayor and confirmed by the DC Council.

Some Charter School History
The bill establishing charter school law in DC was passed by Congress in 1995. At the time, DC spent $9,000 per child on public education, more than $3,000 over the national average. Yet, on a range of academic outcome measures, DC ranked 49th among 51 jurisdictions. Bolstered by the poor performance of local public schools, Congress passed the DC School Reform Act (SRA), including rules for the creation of charter schools in DC. PCSB became the sole charter school authorizer in 2007 when mayoral control was established.

How do charter schools open?
PCSB can approve up to 20 new schools annually. This past year, PCSB approved five new schools to open: a social justice middle school, a single-sex high school for girls, a Montessori school, an Expeditionary Learning (EL) micro-school, and a progressive, student-centered elementary school.

Anyone can apply to open a charter school — a teacher, a school leader, a non-profit organization with a special focus. PCSB welcomes applications each January for charter schools to serve children in PK3 through adults seeking both high school diplomas or GEDs. All applications are reviewed on a rubric which considers the quality of the application and the public demand for the school program. Applicants present their plans in public hearings in February and PCSB then votes in March to decide which schools should be allowed to open in the school year next following. The charter, the formal contract between PCSB and the school, is issued to the school’s board of directors. All DC charter schools are actually 501c-3 nonprofit organizations with an independent governing board of community members. The governing board is legally responsible for the charter. Once approved, a charter school must then hire staff, identify a location and facility, and recruit students to enroll.

Students at Eagle Academy perform during a school talent show. Photo: Courtesy Eagle Academy Public Charter School

Charter School Evaluations
Each charter school that opens in DC is given a 15-year charter contract. The school is evaluated annually on two public frameworks: the Performance Management Framework (PMF), which is managed by PCSB, and the STAR Framework, which is managed by OSSE and reported on the DC School Report Card. Since 2013, the PCSB has used the PMF to annually assess the performance of all charter schools. The STAR Framework is the state-level tool developed by OSSE and approved by the DC State Board of Education (SBOE) as a requirement of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

Both evaluations provide the public with access to test score data, student growth data, attendance data, and other measures of quality appropriate to the grades served, such as graduation rate for high schools or teacher/student interaction data for early childhood programs. Both the PMF and the STAR Framework also provide ratings for schools. The PMF identifies each charter school as Tier 1 (high-performing), Tier 2 (mid-performing) and Tier 3 (low-performing). The STAR Framework assigns each school between 1-5 stars based on how well the school meets the expectations DC has set for all students on all of the data points.

In addition to these annual ratings, PCSB deeply reviews school performance every five and grants “continuance,” or the right to continue operating under the terms of its charter. If PCSB notes any concerns at these five year reviews, it can set conditions on the school in the form of performance requirements. Every charter school must apply for renewal after 15 years. The SRA outlines the specific conditions that a school must meet to earn an additional 15 year charter from the PCSB.

Why might a charter school close? Who decides?
When a charter school opens it makes what is often referred to as “the charter bargain,” greater accountability for performance and results in exchange for more autonomy to design and run a school. Charter schools which fail to achieve the results promised in their charter contract may be closed by PCSB. Charter schools may also be closed for financial reasons or for a breach of law. Since 1996 115 charter schools have opened in DC; 25 of those schools have been closed by their authorizer for failing to meet the terms of their contract.

Charter schools may also close voluntarily. In the 23 years charter schools have existed in DC, 21 schools have relinquished their charters. This typically happens because the board of the charter school has determined that it can no longer operate the school in good faith and must accept that students would be better served by attending other schools.

Closing failed schools is an essential part of the charter bargain, but one that is difficult for children and families and the burden of which is often borne by vulnerable communities. Whenever a charter closes in DC, whether voluntarily or for cause, PCSB works with the school to ensure that all students and families receive assistance in enrolling in new schools, transferring credits, and understanding their educational rights, especially with respect to special education services.

As a former charter school teacher, board member, and researcher, I believe that charter schools are a valuable part of the education landscape in DC and provide innovative public education choices for families. If you want to learn more about charter schools in DC, talk to your SBOE representative, attend a PCSB monthly meeting or attend the My School DC EdFest in December.


Jessica Sutter is the Ward 6 representative on the DC State Board of Education. She can be reached at Jessica.Sutter@dc.gov, 202-674-0115.