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Enrollment Is Up for DC Public Schools, but Is That the Whole Story?

New numbers released today show increases—mostly for charter schools.

More families are trusting their children to DC public schools, according to numbers released today, but a deeper look shows promising trends, raises questions about the future of public schooling, and points out troubling numbers for the traditional public schools.

The base numbers would warrant happy days for public school officials: For the first time in more than a decade, the number of students enrolled in public schools topped 80,000, according to preliminary figures provided by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education.

In 2002 that number was 76,427, representing a trend of families fleeing the deteriorating public schools. Now the renovation of many decrepit school buildings and the drive to reform is drawing students back to public schools. The latest head count is 80,854.

New population figures show that younger people are moving into the city. Many are staying to start families, and they are sending their offspring to public schools.

Most of the increase went to public charter schools, from preschool to high school. The charters, funded with public dollars but operated independently of DCPS, gained 11 percent compared with the last school year. Traditional public schools gained 1 percent, a number that might drop to 0 when auditors review the preliminary figures.

“The trend of the past 16 years is continuing apace, at rates none of us could have anticipated” says Robert Cane, executive director of FOCUS, a charter school advocacy group.

If the trend continues, the city can anticipate the day when more than half of its students attend charter schools. Last year, 41 percent of DC students attended charters; the new figures put that number at 43 percent. With that rate of growth, charters will surpass public schools in three years.

The numbers show that school choice is working well in the nation’s capital. Charter schools are setting up shop in the city’s poorest wards and showing success measured against public schools, and families are responding. According to the charter schools, charter high school graduation rates are 80 percent, compared with 61 percent for traditional high schools. Across grades, charter students score higher than counterparts in DCPS.

The Public Charter School Board says enrollment in charter high schools has increased a whopping 19 percent. That rise is due in part to the success of current charter high schools and the fact that the board approved four new schools this year. The 18 existing charter high schools increased their capacity, and some middle schools expanded into high schools.

How are the city government and DCPS reacting?

The city is still failing to give charters access to public space, according to advocates.

“The Gray administration has been very poor in making school buildings available to us,” says Cane. “Our growth in numbers is in spite of that. Our numbers might be even larger if we had the space.”

It’s possible that DCPS wants to fill that space with its own charter schools. The Board of Education, disbanded five years ago under former mayor Adrian Fenty, had the power to authorize independent schools. Since then the chartering authority has been in the hands of the Public Charter School Board. DCPS chancellor Kaya Henderson has shown interest in getting back the authority from charter schools.

DCPS didn’t respond to questions. Cane met with Henderson last month.

“They are interested in it,” he says, “but they didn’t appear to have concrete plans to move ahead.”

Those plans would require the city council to pass a law giving the chancellor authority to create charters. Either way, the charters are bound to gain ground.

Harry Jaffe is collaborating on a memoir with former DCPS chancellor Michelle Rhee.

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