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In late October, D.C. officials proudly announced that enrollment in nonprivate schools had ticked up 5 percent over the course of a year, putting the overall number of students in public schools at a level not seen in more than a decade. The hitch was where that growth was concentrated: Public charter schools saw an enrollment jump of 11 percent, while growth in the traditional D.C. Public Schools system was just under 1 percent.
In the 15 years since charters were first authorized by Congress, the schools have blossomed: There are now 57 charter schools on 102 campuses serving roughly 41 percent of all D.C. school kids. (In Ward 5, it’s 54 percent, while in wards 1 and 7 it’s 51 percent.) Charter school students show higher proficiency in math and reading, and of the city’s 15 high schools with the highest graduation rates, nine are charters. Even in athletics, charters are winning out: Friendship Collegiate Academy bested Dunbar High School in the city’s inaugural state football championship earlier this month.
To critics, though, not all is well in charter world. The schools can be as inconsistent as their public school brethren, they can cannibalize neighborhood schools, and they expel students at much higher rates—students who then either end up back in DCPS or out of school altogether.
Still, the numbers don’t lie: Charters are blooming, and depending on how DCPS responds, public education in D.C. could look very different in a decade.