The Next Phase of D.C. Reform


If you’re at all interested in Washington, D.C. schools, you should read this excellent report by David Osborne. It serves as a quick and comprehensive history lesson on the city’s last two decades of reform. It also offers valuable analysis of the current state of play and makes a compelling argument about why things landed where they did.

But I think the report’s most valuable contribution is the implicit question it raises about the future. That question—related to the evolution of urban K–12 systems with district and non-district charter sectors—is being faced by cities from coast to coast. How the District (and other places) answers it will shape the next decade of urban school reform. In fact, because of D.C.’s work over the last twenty years and its strong leadership today, it could become the nation’s most important city for systemic reform.

Much of the report proceeds chronologically. If you know nothing about the recent history of D.C. schools, this is a great primer. But even if you’re familiar with the city, you’ll gain a new appreciation for how events and initiatives built on one another. There are many interrelated storylines: turnover in city government, shifting demographics, the creation of a non-district charter sector, the mayoral takeover of the district, Michelle Rhee’s hiring, the teachers’ union scandal, implementation of a new teacher evaluation and compensation system, and the elevation of Kaya Henderson after Rhee’s departure.

On this last point, you’ll learn a great deal about Henderson’s valuable work. She and her team have deftly handled school closures, implemented new standards and tests, developed future principals, adjusted the district’s educator evaluation system, and much more. All of this is on top of the nearly four years of aggressive reforms under Rhee.

Osborne is charitable and optimistic in his retelling of DCPS’s story. He gives great credit to those who have led the district’s work, and he makes sure to detail the resulting improvements in student achievement. This makes his larger point all the more noteworthy: Osborne argues that despite DCPS’s progress, the charter sector has still shown stronger performance.

He cites state and federal test data, including the convincing CREDO study showing charter students learning about a half-year more in reading and math per year than comparable students in DCPS. (Matthew Ladner makes similar points in his new Heritage report.) Osborne then shows that the charter sector accomplishes this with less money per student than the district and in spite of the fact that the charter sector has a higher percentage of low-income and non-white students. (Some argue that DCPS educates students with greater disadvantages, though others disagree).

So how is this possible?

Osborne, coauthor of the groundbreaking book Reinventing Government, argues it’s because of the fundamental differences between the district and charter sectors. He makes the case that the decentralized, nonprofit-relying, civil-society-energizing model of chartering is superior to the centralized, state-dependent district model. Osborne explains that chartering blends parental choice, school-level autonomy, and meaningful accountability in a way that produces school diversity, empowers educators and families, fosters entrepreneurialism, and maintains the system’s focus on student performance. He argues that this approach will always produce better results when executed well. “In sum, DCPS’s leaders are doing excellent work,” Osborne writes. But they just can’t compete because “their model is outdated.”

This argument is particularly important because Osborne is offering an explanation that extends far beyond Washington. Research has shown that the non-district charter sectors in Boston, New York City, Newark, New Orleans, Indianapolis, and other cities are significantly outperforming their districts. Osborne is essentially saying, “This is a standard feature of well-managed non-district charter sectors.”

So what do we do now?

The most intriguing aspect of the report is that it starts pointing us toward an answer. Though it doesn’t flesh out the solution, my next post will try to do so.

I’ll foreshadow that a bit here. Osborne and I agree that the outlines for the next decade of system reform can be found in an extraordinarily reasonable request made by DCPS Chancellor Henderson.

Osborne reports that a few years ago, while testifying before the city council, Henderson said, “People tell me that charters are eating my lunch. Why can’t I have the authority to do that, too?”

She later asked, “Why [do we permit the] rules under which we allow this other system—that is supposedly operating so much better than DCPS—to continue to operate and not provide those same rules and opportunities for DCPS? If we believe that the kinds of autonomies and flexibilities that [charters have are] producing better results for lower-income kids, then I should have those flexibilities and freedoms as well.”

I wholeheartedly agree. DCPS should have the same operational autonomy as charter operators.

However, that’s only half of the charter model. In exchange for greater flexibility, every DCPS school must be put on a performance contract with a charter school authorizer, which would then assess each district-run school using the same tough, outcomes-based accountability that’s applied to charters.

This one small shift—having DCPS function like a charter operator—has profound consequences for the system as a whole. We’d have to change rules related to residence-based assignments, facilities management, mid-year transfers, and more.

Though difficult, this new approach is the logical extension of D.C.’s past and current reforms. And it’s the most promising path for system change.

—Andy Smarick

This post originally appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper.

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College