Where’s the Equity in the DC Public Education Lawsuit?

The last week of September was eventful for public education in DC–but perhaps not for the expected reason.

Tanya Chutkan, a judge in the U.S. District Court for DC, determined that the lawsuit against DC for inequitable charter funding could proceed.

That lawsuit was filed last year by the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools and two local charter schools–Washington Latin and Eagle Academy. The lawsuit alleges that DC has funded charter school students less than students at DCPS, which the plaintiffs say violates the 1995 school reform act that established charter schools in DC and called for a uniform funding formula for all public school students.

Since that act was passed by Congress and made into DC law by the will of Congress, it has been amended multiple times by the DC Council–the only directly elected representative body for DC residents. One of the amendments (which has been approved by Congress) is a continuing variation in the funding formula to reflect the different responsibilities and obligations of DCPS and DC charters.

The judge’s determination that the lawsuit could go forward rested on the “sui generis” nature of DC and how that affects both the Home Rule Act and legislation that Congress passes that applies only to DC–like the School Reform Act.

The judge carefully outlined how, in the case of the School Reform Act, it was clear that Congress did not intend to take over public education in DC, since the Act provides for local officials to be in charge.

But the judge also noted that “the text, context, and history of the School Reform Act show that while Congress did not intend on the Council treating the funding formula as optional, it is too early to determine whether the District’s actions contravene Congress’ intent.”

While the decision appears to be about Home Rule and charter funding equity, it actually is about a larger issue of equity in DC.

In making her determination, the judge quoted briefly the US Senate report on the legislation, which said that “despite the best efforts of the Board of Education and the dedication of the superintendent, the DC Public Education System is broken.”

The solution–as dictated by Congress in 1995–was to create charter schools.

Dismiss for a moment the odd legality of creating local legislation that no one locally had anything to do with (well, except to pay the taxes that provided the funding mechanism for the legislation).

Also dismiss the fact that charters had not then, and still have not now, been proven to be saving graces for education.

The legislation that this lawsuit concerns–the School Reform Act created by Congress and made into DC law without one vote by anyone paying for its realization–is rooted in a premise that was (and still is) false: a “broken” public education system.

Think about this for a minute: DC has a long history of students who do not do well in school. Is that entirely changed now that we have had 20 years of charter schools? Now that we have had a decade of a growing population? Now that we have had school reform and mayoral control for nearly a decade?

The answer–clearly articulated by the report earlier this year by the National Academies on mayoral control of schools–is a resounding No.

So, if the DC public education system was “broken” in 1995, and we are not seeing huge changes now, many years into efforts to “reform” public education in DC, does that mean our public education system is still “broken”?

Interestingly, for some the answer is yes.

At a meeting of my ANC almost two years ago, for instance, representatives from Washington Leadership Academy introduced themselves, as the school was applying for a charter in DC and wanted to locate in the ANC.

By way of introduction to the school they wanted to create, one of the representatives spoke of how all DC public schools are “failing” and thus this (nonexisting) school would be an improvement.

As insulting (and wrong) as that characterization of DC public schools was and is, it clearly shares DNA with the 1995 characterization by Congress that DC’s public education system is “broken.”

This mischaracterization is hardly the fault of DC charters, which are also victims of it.

That is, to apply for a DC charter and to get approved, charter school operators must demonstrate a “need” for their school in DC. That “need” is necessarily prefaced on a presumption of superiority to existing schools, which is based upon test scores.

In other words, the “need” that charter applicants in DC must demonstrate is necessarily self-serving and actually quite expensive. Because the people funding that self-serving need are DC taxpayers, who despite paying for it, ultimately have no direct connection to how that need is proven nor whether that need is actually reflected in community wishes.

Just like back in 1995, when Congress created the law that is the subject of the current lawsuit.

It does not appear, however, that any of that pervasive inequity will be considered when the lawsuit goes forward.

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