Friday, February 22, 2008

The Consolidating Charter School Market 

As predicted by Tom Nida, Chairman of the D.C. Public Charter School Board, there has been consolidation in the number of charter schools in the Washington D.C. market. I believe that if you asked Mr. Nida what he thought about these changes he would not be disappointed. Mergers and acquisitions result in a far greater probability that the twin issues that confront charters, facilities and the learning curves associated with start-up businesses, can be averted.

However, I see two problems with this trend. First, not all schools deemed to be doing well are academically strong. For example, I remember when the Cesar Chavez Public Charter School for Public Policy sought permission to open a third campus in Columbia Heights. The staff report argued against the expansion because Chavez had failed to meet certain academic targets contained in their accountability plan including meeting AYP. But because the school had a significant financial reserve, and some strong support by a few prominent players in the charter school movement, the plan was approved.

But Cesar Chavez PCS has still not made AYP and a story about D.C. charters in Washingtonian Magazine quoted one of their students as saying there was gang activity taking place in one of their facilities.

The second weakness of the consolidation approach is that it puts the D.C. charter school board in the position of limiting competition. Keep in mind that an active marketplace for students is the main tenet behind the theory that school choice will improve all forms of education delivery in the nation’s capital. If the landscape for parents becomes a selection between a few brands then the incentive for schools to offer a better product is severely reduced. This is a gigantic price to pay since there is still so much yet to learn regarding the best ways to teach inner city students.

Perhaps a better direction for the D.C. Public Charter School Board is to maintain strict accountability and yet strive to find ways to support those schools that seem to be not obtaining their goals. For example, almost all charter schools that faced difficulties at the most recent board meeting were in their situation due to facility issues. Yet I have not seen this body make a concerted effort to tackle the most intractable problem impacting charter schools success. Promotion of charter schools together with oversight form the mission of the DCPCSB.

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