A Tale of Two School Systems

According to US News’ David Osborne, D.C. school systems are being viewed as the nation’s “most interesting laboratory” in regards to the unique education model. D.C. is currently the only city with two public school systems of roughly equal size, each structured differently. The successes and failures of this model are already making an impact on the future of public education nationwide.

District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS), is the older system which uses a “unified” governance approach adopted more than a century ago. The district operates all but one of its 113 schools and employs all the staff, with central control and most policies applied equally to majority of these schools. When former D.C. education chancellor, Michelle Rhee arrived on the scene, the district went to extraordinary lengths to demand performance out of its schools, pursuing the most aggressive reforms of any unified urban district in America.

The newest system is overseen by the Public Charter School Board and is largely a 21st century creation. Under this governance model, the board does not own or operate schools. Instead, it contracts with 62 independent nonprofit organizations to operate 115 schools. It negotiates performance contracts (charters) with operators, and lets parents choose their schools. The board also shuts down schools that fail to perform and replicates those that succeed.

Comparisons between the two models are complicated, because their demographics are slightly different. Charter students are overwhelmingly minority students and come from low-income households. 82 percent of them qualify for a free or reduced price lunch, compared to 75 percent in the public school district. However positive results have continued to increase over the last decade. Read more here.