Credit: Illustration by Lloyd Miller

Nearly six months after the election, the “Fair Funding for DC Kids” posters, decorated with childlike handwriting, still dot front lawns across the city. The signs aren’t just remnants of the political season. Today, they represent an early shot in the city’s coming battle over education funding. The advocacy group Friends of Choice in Urban Schools launched the placard offensive during the 2010 mayoral campaign. Now that its candidate is comfortably ensconced in the mayoral suite, FOCUS intends to remind Mayor Vince Gray and the D.C. Council of the organization’s clout as they begin deliberations over how to close an anticipated $600 million gap in the District’s fiscal 2012 budget.

This budget season, schools are expected to take a sizable hit. But charter proponents are determined to evade the knife. During this past year, their complaints about allegedly unfair funding treatment have become more animated.

“It was clear from the very beginning that, as public schools, charter schools were to be publicly funded,” Robert Cane, FOCUS’ executive director, tells me in his group’s small, stylish headquarters on U Street NW. “The law required the council develop a uniform per-student funding mechanism.” Once an innocuous operation with a $60,000 budget, FOCUS, under Cane, has become a muscular organization with 11 full-time employees, nearly $2 million in revenues, and growing political power.

“Some hanky-panky goes on outside of the formula and that’s where the inequities lie,” Cane continues. “If everybody just followed the formula and did what the formula says, I wouldn’t have any complaints at all.” The basic or foundational per-pupil allotment for fiscal year 2011 is about $9,000.

Robert Cane, Focus director(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

The words “inequity” and “parity” have been crafted into both war song and mantra by Cane and other charter advocates. Some elected officials, including Gray, have hummed the refrain, opining that there should be “parity” between charters and traditional public schools. Even before his victory over Adrian Fenty, Gray, as D.C. Council chairman, had placed a clause in the fiscal 2011 Budget Support Act requiring the creation of a commission to study the alleged “inequity” facing charters. Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi also is examining the charge.

An independent organization must be identified who actually will be responsible for convening the commission, says Ron Collins, head of board and commissions in the Gray administration.

Consequently, members have not been named. Still, charter proponents feel certain there will be more government money. “They will find some under-funding,” Cane says.

Not so fast, say advocates for traditional public schools. In a budget-season counter-offensive, they’ve accused Cane and company, essentially, of being greedy whiners. What those in the charter sector call inequities, Cane’s critics say, are basic features of a system that’s based on competition. Charters, their logic goes, can’t expect to receive all the bennies without any burdens: For example, charters aren’t neighborhood schools obliged to accept any child simply because they share the same ZIP code. Their teachers don’t have to be certified. There isn’t a 13-member political body hovering over them, demanding answers to every trivial question. When charters can’t provide for a child’s special-education needs, one mental health professional tells me, that child is simply “sent back to his home school,” meaning DCPS. The trade-off for being able to avoid those sorts of obligations, traditional-school boosters say, is that charter schools shouldn’t be guaranteed the same amount of money.

“Limitations on traditional public schools are huge compared with limitations on charters,” says Nathan Saunders, president of the Washington Teachers’ Union. “We have a fist-fight going on here, and we have tied the hands of traditional public schools.”

“It’s too easy to paint this as charter schools have been neglected or ignored in some way,” says former D.C. Deputy Mayor for Education Victor Reinoso. “They are at risk of inviting a level of scrutiny that is going to limit their flexibility over time.”

For years, I have been a strong supporter of education choice, even for those vouchers that once again are the focus of a nasty battle between some in the city and Congress. That’s why it’s been a little odd to survey the coming school-spending showdown and realize I’m on Saunders’ side, not Cane’s. The best thing the cash-strapped District government can do for the city’s charter schools, it seems to me, is to just say no.

This isn’t because charter schools are a bad idea. Just the opposite: It’s because guaranteeing a perpetual gusher of tax dollars is the surest way to undermine the basic tenets the schools were supposed to represent—excellence via competition and independence from government bureaucracy. I’m concerned about stats that show many charters are not meeting their educational mission. Responding to this situation by throwing money at the schools means abandoning the notion that they would live or die by their own records. As Reinoso notes, it’s also a recipe for turning quasi-independent institutions into bureaucrats’ playgrounds. It’s the logic of government: Guarantee funding to subpar charters now, and before long you’ll be stripping even the stellar ones of their freedom to innovate.

Charter schools became a national sensation back in the 1990s, after conservatives quietly stole the idea from liberals. University of Massachusetts professor Ray Budde initially floated the concept. Albert Shanker, the legendary president of the American Federation of Teachers, embraced the idea. In 1988, he proposed establishing “charter schools” or “schools of choice,” designed and operated by innovative, high-performing teachers or principals.

At a time of national panic over school quality, charters were promoted as an elixir that would inject energy into public education. Unshackled from rules and regulations, they would thrive. They could pay teachers whatever they chose—and they’d have to excel because their livelihoods would depend on competing for students and money.

Nathan Saunders, WTU president(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

Washington owes its status as the capital of charters to a coincidence of history. The D.C. government teetered on bankruptcy just as Republicans took over Capitol Hill in the 1990s. And those Republicans, having bailed out the city financially, were eager to push conservative policies. District schools were famously wretched: The congressionally created financial control board found that the longer a child stayed in the public schools, the worse that child performed academically. Congress’ answer: charter schools.

“Congress simply told the city it had to set up a [charter school] board,” recalls Jeff Smith, executive director of DC Voice and a former member of the now-defunct D.C. Board of Education. More than a decade later, there are 52 schools, spread over 93 campuses, educating approximately 29,000 District children—some 38 percent of the total public school population.

“The purpose was to let a thousand flowers bloom,” says Brian Jones, chairman of the D.C. Public Charter School Board.

Today, the local charter scene includes some spectacular successes: Schools with names like KIPP, Friendship, SEED, Thurgood Marshall, and Hyde have all thrived. President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama paid a visit to a Capital City Charter School program in Columbia Heights in 2009. That same year, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools ranked the District’s program second best in the nation, citing its charter law as a model of autonomy, funding equity and facilities support.

But the reality is that there is increasing evidence many charters really aren’t achieving their stated purpose. Innovation is rare and academic superiority is mostly mythology. “Upon close examination, claims of widespread charter-school success do not hold up to scrutiny,” says Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, who studies charters nationwide.

A report released in 2009 by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University underscored that assessment. Examining schools in 15 states and the District—which account for roughly 70 percent of all charter students in the country—the study re-examined purported math gains by charter students. Its conclusion: “Only 17 percent [of those students] out-performed regular public schools; while 37 percent under performed and 46 percent showed no difference.” A more in-depth examination of District charter schools revealed “no discernible difference in reading and math gains between charter school and traditional public school performance.”

“We have a million charters; most are not high performing,” says one senior-level DCPS manager who requested anonymity. “Why is it better to let 1,000 flowers bloom when 900 of those flowers are a waste of money?”

The answer to that, of course, is politics: More than a decade later, charters have their own constituency—a constituency that isn’t talking about ethereal notions like competition and quality, but is instead fighting for tangible things like guaranteed money. And with more than a third of D.C.’s school kids enrolled and friends in high places, that’s a fight charter advocates may well win. But should they?

Money may not be the root of all evil, as the adage goes. But it can sure misdirect a conversation. For the past two years, charter proponents have engaged in a myopic debate about whether the District government has or hasn’t fairly allocated money to charters.

Among the issues not discussed: Just who is actually benefiting from the system? Is it middle-class families adept at navigating the bureaucracy—or poor people who desperately needed to escape badly performing traditional schools? Is there unfair competition, as DC Voice’s Smith suggests when he recounts the laments of DCPS principals whose schools are in close proximity to charter programs? Should there be an agreement similar to free-trade accords, establishing geographic boundaries and other operational restrictions? Are charters realizing their intended mission, or have they become a minimally-regulated second-track system that mimics the mediocrity of DCPS?

These questions have little to do with spreadsheets. But the answers circle back to cash.

If charter proponents insist—and often they do—that everything is about the Benjamins, the prime concern should be whether taxpayers are, in fact, getting what they thought they were buying.

“What has the potential to undermine [the movement] is the quality of schools,” says Jones. “If you look across the scope of the charter school sector, some schools are not as strong as they should be.” The charter board is introducing performance standards for all charters this fall.

A tenacious lobbyist who often plays bad cop to the charter board’s good cop, Cane also admits, reluctantly, there are some low-performing charters. But when he’s advocating about funding, as he was last October in a Washington Examiner essay, he stresses the positive. “Over the past three years” his piece reads, “charters raised student proficiency in secondary schools from 43 to 57 percent in math and 43 to 52 percent in reading. At the same time, the regular school system raised secondary school proficiency from 29 to 42 percent in reading and 26 to 43 percent in math.” But those numbers tell a tale Cane doesn’t announce: Many charter students begin at higher levels of proficiency than do those in traditional schools. Further, DCPS has achieved larger percentages of growth than charters.

At the national level, charter advocates have too often minimized the quality issue—preferring to highlight other purported differences between charters and traditional schools. “There have been modest improvements” in academic performance, says Lindsey Burke, a policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation. “[But] the primary concern for many D.C. parents is school safety.” Burke cites a study by the Heritage Foundation and the Lexington Institute that found in the 2007–2008 school year, there were 912 incidences of violent crime in the D.C. Public Schools but only 17 in the city’s charter schools.

Burke declines to enter the current D.C. money debate, but says stabilizing charter schools is critical. “Stability is dependent on the ability to open new schools,” she says.

So, we’re back to cash talk.

New schools are dangerously reliant on the District government.

Speaking with several individuals who will open charters for the first time this fall during a recent charter recruitment expo at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, none wants to discuss with me what might happen when the money gets tight.

“If we do a good job people will recognize we have the students’ interests at heart and we will find funds,” says Clayton Young, the vice-chairman of the board at Richard Wright Public Charter School for Journalism and Media, located off Benning Road NE in Ward 7.

“We really believe this benefits all children. There may or may not be hurdles along the way. We are prepared to face the challenges,” says Katherine Avery, program coordinator and one of the founders of the Shining Stars Montessori Academy near Howard University.

The William E. Doar Jr. Charter School for the Performing Arts, with campuses in Edgewood and adjacent to the Armed Forces Retirement Home, offers a glimpse of what happens to organizations that come to the charter table carrying only a D.C. government meal ticket.

Offering a basic college prep and a performing arts curriculum, Doar opened in 2004 with 153 students enrolled in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade. In 2005, it extended to 7th grade. In 2006, it went through 9th grade. By 2008, using government funds to leverage a bank loan, it built a second campus. Today, it has 655 students from pre-K through 12th grade.

There isn’t anything especially innovative about Doar’s curriculum. In fact, there are as many as three traditional public schools offering performing arts as an integral feature of their academic programs. Further, Doar’s rapid growth hasn’t resulted in especially superior academics. The charter board has said as much: In April 2010, the board agreed to allow Doar to continue to operate its school only if it met eight conditions. In January 2011, the school reported that it had met just three of those requirements.

“[Some] of the conditions it failed to meet were related to the high school’s performance,” says charter board spokeswoman Audrey Williams. Doar officials have told the board that they may have “prematurely” expanded their high school program and “couldn’t meet the needs” of those students.

That should have been enough to close the program. After all, charters aren’t supposed to operate like traditional public schools, which carry on year after year regardless of the academic outcomes. But the charter board decided to permit Doar’s high school to continue at least until August 2011.

Why? Money.

“Terminating the high school program would create a loss of about $2 million in revenue,” school officials told the board. It’s unclear why closing one part of the school jeopardized another part. That per-pupil funding the District government provides should have been sufficient to educate those who would remain. Williams says Doar officials cited their “huge mortgage.”

Doar isn’t the only school with those types of issues. Many others, aided by taxpayer funding, also expanded prematurely. Officials knew the District would pay for each student they recruited and enrolled, even if those kids didn’t receive the kind of education charter founders intended or that those children deserved.

Charter proponents like Cane place the burden of this fiscal mismanagement on the government, complaining the District has shortchanged charters on facilities funding and didn’t allow them to occupy surplus DCPS buildings. But the city may actually be the victim of bad charters. After a sizable investment, the District will be forced to reintegrate Doar students into its traditional public education program, although they were not part of DCPS’ calculation when it prepared its budget and developed its individual school plans. Unlike charters, traditional schools are required by law to accept every in-boundary student who appears at its doors.

“More money does not necessarily equate with high quality. It’s a red herring,” says Jones, who notes he’s not speaking officially for the charter board. “Philosophically, I’m always a little wary when people say ‘if only we had more money.’”

The white lettering on the black bags FOCUS has given to the hundreds of participants at the charter recruitment expo reads, “I am public charter schools and I vote.” There isn’t any subtly in that message, which telegraph’s the group’s likely strategy for the pending budget battle.

Gray’s mayoral victory, in charter advocates’ telling, is indicative of their power to build or destroy political careers. And, to ensure there isn’t any confusion about who they are, Cane says he won’t hesitate to galvanize celebrities in the business and political communities—many of them associated with the handful of legitimately outstanding local charters.

“The view of public charter schools has changed dramatically,” Cane says. “There is acceptance. I think we’ve developed significant support in the council under Chairman Gray; he’s now mayor. So, there will be support.”

But DCPS supporters have political weapons, too. The American Federation of Teachers and other unions also invested $1 million to get Gray elected. Their lobbyists are certain to throw around reports like the one from Stanford, which are daggers in the heart of charter-school mythologies. And they won’t think twice about using schools like Doar to make their point that taxpayers’ money could be better spent.

“I don’t like the idea of charter schools shaking trees for more money,” says Reinoso, Fenty’s deputy mayor for education. “It’s counterintuitive that charters are fixated on the old school ask of ‘Give us more money.’”

“We cannot de-fund traditional schools in an effort to over-fund charters,” says the WTU’s Saunders. “The real issues are: Where are charters going in the next five years? And what is the right balance of charter schools and [traditional] public schools?”

Cane, I suspect, will work to avoid that larger discussion. A monotonous recitation of perceived inequities will be deployed to redirect the attention of elected officials. FOCUS already has generated graphs and documents with statistics to support its thesis. For example, in May 2010, it circulated a report by Ball State University that found D.C. charters received, between 2006 and 2007, 41.2 percent less funding than DCPS. But Cane and his team ignored the fact that the total per pupil funding of $29,808 for DCPS and $17,525 for charters may have been miscalculated. (These numbers reflect spending on things ranging from maintenance fees to special-education costs that go beyond the basic allotment that comes with every kid.)

“Charter schools can’t afford a DCPS standard or in many cases a decent amount of space for their kids: They don’t have playgrounds; don’t have cafeterias and don’t have libraries. They can’t find buildings that have these things or they can’t afford to build them,” says Cane. “Charter schools do not have economies of scale. DCPS has economies of scale.”

When there are maintenance problems at a DCPS school, for instance, says Cane, officials can pick up the phone and call the Office of Education Facilities Management. “But a charter school has to go find Joe who fixes windows,” he continues, citing other DCPS funding advantages, like leaning on the city government for everything from legal help to information technology services. The local and federal governments also pay DCPS pension costs. And, under then-Chancellor Michelle Rhee, DCPS tapped philanthropic money to boost teacher salaries.

“The money Michelle Rhee got from foundations, charter schools didn’t get any. I know because I went to those foundations and said give Rhee all the money you want. But give some to charter schools. They didn’t do that,” says Cane. He has calculated charters should receive at least $5,000 more for each student.

But Cane may be under-estimating the support for traditional schools, which are just beginning to realize small benefits from controversial reforms begun under Fenty and Rhee. And I suspect he has misjudged the moment. The District government faces enormous financial problems, furloughing employees in the latest deficit-fighting effort. Elected officials are divided over whether to raise taxes or take deep spending cuts. Under such circumstances, getting more money could be dicey, especially if it appears to come at the expense of DCPS.

“These budgetary times will force us to reconcile ourselves to the fact that we are operating inefficiently by running two separate systems,” says interim DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson. The former Rhee deputy, who may be tapped for the permanent chancellor post, offers general support for charter schools, but then says: “We will need to have the tough conversation around traditional and charter schools that we haven’t had.”

WTU’s Saunders, for his part, advocates the District government fund “charter schools that perform above the level of traditional public schools….If they are not achieving at minimum the education level of public schools, they ought not be getting our money.”

A bare-knuckled budget showdown could lead to a new status quo where charters are judged by traditional-school standards.

That, of course, would mean the demand for more money has backfired. The result would be greater, more intense scrutiny—not 1,000 flowers blooming, but 1,000 bureaucrats inspecting. That kind of review ultimately could result in the alteration of the charter sector’s basic DNA. Within the current fiscal climate, many residents may not complain about demands for such changes. Further, considering what happened at Doar, the public almost certainly would demand more disclosure of how funds are being spent and more oversight of what’s going on at those 52 charter schools.

“There has got to be a way to intelligently fold in more oversight data and information into the city’s oversight stream,” says Smith. Politicians caught between the parents of that 62 percent of the students educated by DCPS and those of the 38 percent attending charting schools might support such a move.

More oversight, more regulations, more restrictions. Suddenly, charter schools aren’t the freewheeling operations their inventors envisioned. Stripping them of independence—their one indisputable success—could deny charters the collective opportunity to realize the innovative, high quality academic programs envisioned by early proponents like Budde, Shanker, and congressional Republicans. In other words, charters essentially would mimic DCPS.

A black and white bumper sticker with childlike lettering designed to fit that new reality might read: Charter schools: a division of DCPS.