National News
November 18, 2012

Looking at charter schools, apples to apples

by David Freddoso

In Washington, D.C.'s Ward 3, the average family income is $260,000 per year. A middling home there sells for about $900,000. As of 2010, fewer than 500 people out of 77,000 were on welfare or food stamps. The District's culture and history -- past and present -- are black, but Ward 3 is about as white as Utah. And it's about as black as Utah, too. 

I do not live in Ward 3. I have nothing against the place, but we can probably agree that it's not representative of the District. Nor are its public schools.

So it's a bit misleading, for example, to say that 46 percent of DCPS students meet or exceed proficiency standards in math. A more accurate way of putting it is that in Ward 3 public schools, math proficiency is 77 percent, and it's just 41 percent in the other seven wards. The story is the same with reading: 78 percent DCPS proficiency in Ward 3, 38 percent in the rest of the city, based on my calculations from the school profile information on the DCPS website.

This should shed a bit of light on the charter school craze that has taken hold among parents outside of Ward 3 -- there are no public charter schools within Ward 3. Charters, which now teach 43 percent of all public school students in the District, perform at a somewhat better rate than the DCPS system. But when you compare the charters to the DCPS schools they're actually competing with -- the ones outside of Ward 3 -- the gap becomes more dramatic: The proficiency rate among charter students last year was about 34 percent higher in math and 30 percent higher in reading. The four-year graduation rate for all charter high schools is 77 percent, which is actually four points better than Wilson, the DCPS high school in Ward 3, and more than 20 points better than DCPS overall.

In an age when everyone is concerned about racial gaps in learning, it's also important to note that charters are getting these results while serving a more heavily black student population than DCPS, and with a greater share of low-income students who are eligible for free lunches.


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