Traditional public schools and public charter schools often compete for the same students. But a debate in the District over the recent approval of a charter school location that’s directly across the street from a public school with a similar mission is stoking concerns about whether charters and traditional schools can complement, rather than compete, with each other. Kojo explores the complex relationships between traditional public school systems and the growing networks of charter schools that share the same jurisdictions.


  • Emma Brown D.C. Education Reporter, Washington Post
  • Kavitha Cardoza Special Correspondent, WAMU 88.5 News
  • Abigail Smith Deputy Mayor for Education, District of Columbia


  • 13:06:38

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later on the broadcast, "The Stager." Author Susan Coll's satirical take on relationships and neighborhoods in Washington D.C. But, first, a new round in the turf fight between charters and traditional public schools in the nation's capital. Plans for a new science-themed charter school in D.C. led the chancellor of the city's public school system to question whether cannibalism is the strategy for managing the District's school networks.

  • 13:07:16

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIAt issue is the fact that the new charter is going to be located directly across the street from another elementary school with the same academic mission, which is why Chancellor Kaya Henderson, who learned about the plans over Twitter, criticized whether the city is planning effectively enough so that charters and traditional schools are complementing rather than competing with each other.

  • 13:07:36

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to explore what this flashpoint says about the greater education reform conversation both in the District and nationwide, is Kavitha Cardoza, special correspondent for WAMU 88.5. She joins us in studio. Hi, Kavitha.

  • 13:07:50

    MS. KAVITHA CARDOZAHi, Kojo. Thanks for having me.

  • 13:07:51

    NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Emma Brown, a reporter at the Washington Post, who covers education. Emma, good to see you again.

  • 13:07:57

    MS. EMMA BROWNYou, too. Thanks for having me.

  • 13:07:58

    NNAMDIAnd joining us by phone is Abigail Smith, the District of Columbia's Deputy Mayor for Education. Abby Smith, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:08:05

    MS. ABIGAIL SMITHThank you, Kojo.

  • 13:08:07

    NNAMDIIf you have questions or comments for us, give us a call at 800-433-8850. Do you think Washington D.C.'s charter schools and traditional public schools can exist in a way in which they complement rather than compete with each other? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Or send email to Emma, the District has two networks of public schools -- traditional schools, charter schools that are publically funded but are privately operated. They often compete for students but they now seem to be competing for turf.

  • 13:08:38

    NNAMDIWhat happened that allowed the Charter Harmony School of Excellence to move into a building across from Langley Elementary. And why is this eliciting such strong reaction?

  • 13:08:49

    BROWNSure. Well, the way that this works in D.C. is a charter school gets approved to operate based on the merits of its academic and fiscal application. But when it applies, it doesn't have to cite a location or even suggest a location. And part of that, you know, folks in the charter world would say, is because there's no guarantee that you're going to be able to get a location anywhere. Real estate is hard to come by. You kind of have to jump at whatever comes along. And that's what Harmony said to me, is that they looked all over the city and this was the spot that they found.

  • 13:09:24

    BROWNIt's an old church-run school in Eckington, across the street from Langley Elementary. So they signed the lease and then let the charter school board know that that's where they were going to go. And Kaya Henderson found out about it on Twitter, as you said. So there's not a lot of coordination. In fact, I would say no coordination at this point between DCPS and the charter schools in terms of where they locate.

  • 13:09:51

    NNAMDITo what degree does the DC Charter School Board take into account a neighborhood's needs or the mission of the school when it reviews an application for a new school. Was geographic impact considered at all with Harmony, as far as you know?

  • 13:10:05

    BROWNWell, they didn't offer a suggestion of a location in their application. So, no, it wasn't.

  • 13:10:11

    NNAMDIKavitha, what's the history here? The network of charter schools in D.C. seems to be thriving, even though they often have to scrape and claw to find places to open schools?

  • 13:10:20

    CARDOZAMm-hmm. Under former Mayor Fenty and former Chancellor Michelle Rhee, Kojo, they had a really contentious relationship. And charter schools were, you know, the buildings were a huge problem, which still are. I remember there were fights in some charter schools and SRO, you know, school resource officers were not deployed there because, oh, you're like charter schools. At press conferences, you know, I'd go to a couple press conferences and then call up charter school people and say, hey why weren't you there with your numbers -- like major, final, end-of-year report cards would come out kind of thing.

  • 13:10:58

    CARDOZAAnd they would say, oh, we didn't know about it. Or the Mayor's office called us five minutes before, and we can't get all the way to southeast D.C. I mean it was really bad. There's not a single involved in the charter schools at that time who would say that they had a good relationship. It was very contentious.

  • 13:11:13

    NNAMDISo they felt disrespected.

  • 13:11:15

    CARDOZAVery disrespected. And that's actually a word several people have used. And so fast-forward to Mayor Vincent Gray and Kaya Henderson coming in, the current chancellor. And I think she really, when she was, you know, came in, she said that she really wanted to change things. She wanted to collaborate a lot more. So for example, one of our elementary schools in DCPS, a charter school operates it, Stanton Elementary. And every time there's something about how well, you know, DCPS is doing, often they point to Stanton Elementary School. They have, just last year, Achievement Prep and Malcolm X have co-located.

  • 13:11:54

    CARDOZAYou know, she's constantly been saying, you know, I have economies of scale for purchasing. I have a curriculum department. Like, let's work more. And she has said that she got clobbered -- that's her word -- when she suggested that charter schools do middle schools really well. And so it doesn't mean -- DCPS can, like, kind of share students, so the feeder pattern can go through charter schools. And she was -- traditional public school folks were furious at that comment. So I, you know, I can imagine, what I know of her from covering her, that she was probably really unhappy that she found out about it on Twitter.

  • 13:12:33

    NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, we're discussing a charter public school -- a public charter school locating across the street from a D.C. elementary school that has the same mission and the argument that has resulted from that. If you have questions or comments, give us a call at 800-433-8850. Emma, why are charter schools apparently reluctant to do more joint planning? What would they lose by doing so?

  • 13:12:56

    BROWNWell, I think joint planning can smack of government control, depending on how you're looking at it. And charter schools -- many folks in the charter school movement feel that what's made them powerful and what's made them successful is freedom from bureaucracy and red tape and from having to deal with layers upon layers of planning. So -- or planning and other kinds of red tape. So I think that that is the sticking point, that joint planning sounds very friendly and collaborative, but there's a fear that it's actually sort of a takeover or controlling kind of mechanism that would undermine the very thing that makes charter schools what they are.

  • 13:13:35

    NNAMDIYour story included a few details about how Kaya Henderson envisions the DCPS public schools and charters working more strategically. How would she like to see it work.

  • 13:13:46

    BROWNWell, the way she described it to me was, she would like to sit down with the Charter School Board and sort of identify needs and priorities around the city -- so what neighborhoods need, what kind of programs and what kind of grade levels are they lacking right now? And then using -- the Charter School Board would then use that list of priorities when they're thinking about who to approve -- which applications to approve and which to deny. So that there would be some sort of connection between what's needed and what actually gets approved.

  • 13:14:17

    NNAMDIEmma Brown is a reporter at the Washington Post. She joins us in studio with Kavitha Cardoza, special correspondent for WAMU 88.5. Abigail Smith is the District of Columbia's Deputy Mayor for Education. She joins us by phone. You, too, can join the conversation by phone. Call us at 800-433-8850. What do you think is the best way for the systems to work together strategically. You can also send an email to Abigail Smith, where does this kind of coordination that the school's chancellor seems to want fit into the ongoing conversation your office is leading right now about redrawing the boundaries for traditional public schools?

  • 13:14:56

    SMITHWell, I think it's a really important part of the conversation, Kojo, and one that has come up a lot in our community conversations, for some of the same reasons that Chancellor Henderson talked about. We have a situation now where 44 percent of our public school students are served in public charter schools. And so essentially we are delivering what is an essential government service, public education, through this different mechanism from a traditional school district.

  • 13:15:21

    SMITHAnd one of the things that I think, given that significant share of the public school market, that we really need to be thinking about in different ways is the wise allocation of government resources. So we certainly all want great schools for our kids and we want kids to have access to those great schools.

  • 13:15:39

    SMITHWhen we are starting to get towards the, you know, 50-50 between charter schools and DCPS, we really need to ask ourselves some questions about what might need to look different in terms of our policy approaches and our approach to allocating resources. And that goes for DCPS and public charter schools. I think there really needs to be some give and take on both sides. And that's really been part of the discussion.

  • 13:16:03

    NNAMDIWhat do you feel are the most important things the city needs to do to make sure that these systems complement each other, instead of "cannibalizing" each other, as the chancellor said in Emma Brown's piece?

  • 13:16:16

    SMITHWell, I think the discussion about joint planning really is at the center of this. So what do we need to be thinking about in terms of what are the particular needs both citywide but also within very particular communities in terms of types of schools that need to be offered and what is currently existing in those communities, so that decisions at every stage of the game can take that into account -- again, both on the DCPS and the public charter school side.

  • 13:16:45

    SMITHThere's some other sort of more sort of in-the-weeds policy issues around the way the local education agencies, charter schools and DCPS, get paid, to think about, whether there's some incentives that can be built into the system to ensure more sort of equity of resources and services. And I do think that there's some questions around what the process is for charter approvals in terms of ensuring that there is some level of community engagement in that. Certainly I wouldn't suggest that the decision-making authority of a public charter school board should be, you know, taken away or undermined.

  • 13:17:21

    SMITHBut I do think that the Charter School Board should be thinking more about how it can engage the community in that process.

  • 13:17:29

    NNAMDIWell, you did mention you don't think the decision-making power of the Charter School Board should be taken away. But it does seem that there are some people in that movement who feel that it can be, at the very least, compromised. The Executive Director of the D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools says, in Emma Brown's story, that nobody outside the charter sector should have veto power over where their schools should locate. What would you say to that?

  • 13:17:55

    SMITHWell, I think charter advocates have been very clear about how they view autonomy of charters as sort of absolute on all fronts. And I think that perhaps the time has come for us to have a conversation around ensuring that we are protecting the autonomies of charter schools while at the same time taking into account the broader system and the city's overall approach to public education and resources. I don't think that it undermines the fundamental autonomy of charter schools to ask a question about what would be logical places to site schools, for example.

  • 13:18:31

    SMITHI don't think it, you know, it undermines the charter system to have conversations around student mobility and how kids move from school to school and with the impacts on families. I think that charter operators want to serve families well, want to serve kids well. That's the goal we all share. And I think having the conversation across sector about how we can do that better in our current environment is the right conversation to have.

  • 13:18:52

    CARDOZAI also think -- sorry, Kojo...

  • 13:18:54

    NNAMDIHere's Kavitha.

  • 13:18:54

    CARDOZA...can I just jump in?

  • 13:18:55

    NNAMDIPlease do.

  • 13:18:56

    CARDOZAIt's not just an issue about families. I mean, it's also taxpayer dollars and how that's spent. When you have schools, it costs a certain amount to keep them open and to run. And so most recently when the schools were closed because of under-enrollment, I mean, that could potentially be an issue over here. That was a very emotional process for the community. But most charter schools, if you look on the location maps on the charter school website, they draw from right around their area. There are very few which are kind of citywide.

  • 13:19:32

    CARDOZAAnd so when you have that, you're competing for students. It still costs the same amount to keep those schools open. I mean, it's really, I think it's a cost that's borne by taxpayers until there's under-enrollment in one. And then we go through the same, you know, the closing down on schools kind of thing.

  • 13:19:49

    NNAMDIThere's another philosophical question here of an ongoing debate, if you will. And I'd like to hear you weigh-in on it, Abigail Smith -- and both Emma and Kavitha knows more about this in the national conversation than I do -- and that is, one of the rationales for charter schools is that by competing with traditional public schools, they would force public schools to improve. So isn't there an element of competition here, and maybe that's what we're seeing right now, Abigail Smith?

  • 13:20:17

    SMITHI think there is an element of competition that can be healthy. And I think we've seen, again, on both sides, DCPS and charters, and charters, you know, within the charter sector, pushing each other to get better at responding to families' needs and serving kids well. So I think that there is an element of that. But I also think that, you know, we know that markets are not perfect. And that there are lots of other factors that are at play here that can make that competition sometimes undermine the very goals that we have.

  • 13:20:47

    SMITHAnd so figuring out where competition is healthy and is pushing people to do better and schools to do better and where we need to think about coordination. That's sort of the intersection that we're talking about. And I certainly would not suggest that eliminating, you know, the notion of competition absolutely is the right call. I think it has had some benefits. But I also think that we're at a point now where if we don't think about coordination much more effectively, we're going to create more problems for ourselves.

  • 13:21:19

    NNAMDIEmma, Kavitha, how does this process work of the cities and of the jurisdictions? Are there cities in which traditional schools and charter schools are working more in concert that you know of?

  • 13:21:29

    BROWNWell, you know, what I would say about here in D.C. the reason that this has become, I think, a flashpoint now is not just because of Harmony. But because we're undergoing this boundary and student assignment review, which is making sort of abstract concepts about joint planning and competition feel very much -- very real to families that are trying to figure out what's going to happen in the city in the years to come. And what schools they're going to have access to. So I think that that's why we're seeing it so intensely here. But, yes, other cities are definitely dealing with that.

  • 13:22:05

    CARDOZAI think also because D.C. has such a high percentage of kids in charter schools. So for example, in some -- I spoke with Todd Ziebarth from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. And he said in most communities this is not an issue because there are so few charter schools. In some like say Denver, the local school district is the only authorizer.

  • 13:22:29

    CARDOZAIn some he says it's way more chaotic. So in Detroit or Cleveland there are double digit authorizers. You know, tons of organizations or people can authorize a charter school. And he said there it becomes even more complicated because each of the authorizers has a different kind of quality. And he said at least in D.C. like the public charter school board is very respected. And they do a lot of kind of background work.

  • 13:22:55

    CARDOZAIt's interesting, Kojo, that this is something that is going on, like Emma says, around the country. Because the Gates Foundation in 2012, because this was becoming such an issue in different communities, they paid seven communities. It was called the (word?) collaboration between public charter and traditional schools. $25 million just to improve communication, to coordinate professional development for a universal enrollment system. DC was not one of those seven cities.

  • 13:23:27

    NNAMDIHow has this -- has any progress been made since your story, Emma Brown? How is this likely to resolve between charter Harmony School of Excellence and Langley Elementary? Is this a done deal, too late to reverse, going to happen?

  • 13:23:41

    BROWNAs far as I know, this is happening. The lease is signed. Harmony is working to remodel the building. And, you know, they're meeting with -- they've had families enrolled for next year, so things are moving ahead at that particular site. That won't change. But I think that, you know, the questions it's raising are going to be interesting as the mayoral race moves forward, to hear how the candidates respond to these questions, because it's certainly a key issue in the world of education for D.C., a key question for those folks to answer.

  • 13:24:10

    NNAMDIAbigail Smith, how is this reality likely to impact that neighborhood?

  • 13:24:16

    SMITHWell, I think that Langley is a school that many neighbors have really just begun to focus on investing in. The DCPS has done some significant investment themselves in the programming at the school. And Langley has begun to see some movement in the right direction. I think that there's some concern in the community that this will undermine that. I also think that Harmony will draw students from various places, not necessarily just from that community.

  • 13:24:46

    SMITHI think the bigger long term piece in terms of what we're looking at with that particular situation is for us to step back and think about where would be a smart location for Harmony to locate. They -- it's the first school they're operating in D.C. but they have a lot of schools around the country and have a very good reputation nationally. And so what would be the appropriate location for a school to be able to serve kids well? That space that they're in is not a long term space for them in any event. And so those are conversations that we look forward to having with them.

  • 13:25:21

    NNAMDII don't know if either Emma or Kavitha have any more questions for you, Abigail Smith.

  • 13:25:26

    BROWNI have one. This is coming -- you know, when I've spoken with folks at the charter school board or charter advocacy groups about this issue, over and over they bring up the issue of empty DCPS buildings that are no longer functioning as DCPS buildings. And feel that the release of those, though the Gray Administration has been better than the Fenty Administration in this respect, is still too slow and that these buildings are still -- this problem could be solved, or at least partially solved if the administration was more willing to release these buildings more quickly. So I just wanted to hear from Abigail Smith about that.

  • 13:26:04

    SMITHThe facilities issue is certainly a significant one. There are 30 former DCPS buildings that house charter schools now. So, you know, there are many charter schools that do have homes in DCPS buildings. And, you know, just in the last year half a dozen leases have been signed or buildings have been awarded. You're right that many in the charter movement feel that that is too slow.

  • 13:26:26

    SMITHI think that we certainly can do more on our end to ensure that schools are in -- the charter schools are in good school space and that we're making use of these DCPS buildings for the purpose they were designed. At the same time, I want to point out that while it would solve part of the challenge, it would solve part of the challenge for charters that need to find space. And that is an important challenge to solve for. It would not necessarily solve the other piece of the challenge that we're talking about today, which is having schools that may serve very similar populations of kids right near each other.

  • 13:26:58

    SMITHAnd so there is an inherent tension. And even if we were to, you know, immediately identify all empty school buildings and immediately turn them over to charters, you wouldn't actually solve that whole challenge.

  • 13:27:11

    CARDOZAI actually think, Abigail, it's even one step -- like we need to take a step -- one step back which is when you said it wouldn't solve that problem, I don't get the impression that a lot of charter school advocates even see this issue as a problem. I think that's the basic thing, that we are all not on the same page about whether this is an issue or not. When I speak to them they say it's competition. Langley less than 50 percent of kids can read and do math at grade level. So it's not a high-performing school. So their scores -- parents have more of a choice, like they don't see it as a quote "problem."

  • 13:27:52

    SMITHI think that that is the case for many. I think that there are also many charter providers who do recognize it as a problem for a couple of reasons. One, the very challenges that Kaya Henderson articulated in terms of, you know, when she talked about canalization, that's a reality within the charter sector as well, as there are certain, you know, grade levels and types of schools that more and more have opened creating that competition and making it challenging for even high-performing schools in some cases to fill all their seats.

  • 13:28:24

    SMITHSo I think that some charter leaders would see it as a challenge from their own perspective. But I also think that there are many charter leaders who do understand that we have a broader system of schools that we need to think about, and how the entire city is supported by the public education system. And they're in this to run their own school for sure, but they're also in this to be a part of moving forward an entire community and city. And so I think there are many charter leaders who recognize this challenge and want to be a part of figuring it out.

  • 13:28:56

    CARDOZAKojo, I have one more quick question for Abigail Smith which is...

  • 13:28:58

    NNAMDIYou're turning into Tom Sherwood on me.

  • 13:29:01

    CARDOZAWhere should the buck stop, Abigail? Is it with you? Is it with the chancellor? Is it with, you know, Scott from the charter school board? Or should we be -- is this a mayoral thing? Because I think a lot of people have questions and who's responsible ultimately?

  • 13:29:18

    SMITHSo this may sound like a copout but I actually think everybody needs to take responsibility for this. I don't think we're going to solve this by any one party trying to take charge. I think we need everybody at the table. And we need each of the entities to be able to take on the piece that they can most effectively move forward.

  • 13:29:36

    NNAMDIAbigail Smith is the District of Columbia's deputy mayor for education. Thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:29:42

    SMITHThank you.

  • 13:29:43

    NNAMDIEmma Brown, before you go, another question. There's also been the issue of fraud. You reported a few weeks ago that the charter school board wants more authority to examine the records of organizations that manage the city's charter schools. What's this about and who does have that authority?

  • 13:29:58

    BROWNGood question. Yeah, this grows out of a couple of cases that we've talked about here before. One of them is Options Public Charter School and the more recent one is Community Academy Public Charter School. So these were schools whose founders or managers then founded a company to manage the school. And once the -- you know, so they have a contract to provide certain services in exchange for tax dollars. Once those tax dollars leave the hands of the charter school and go to the company, they're kind of out of sight. Like there's no way for the public charter school board to really know how that money is used.

  • 13:30:37

    BROWNAnd so who can know how that money is used? I mean, right now the attorney general of the city has got this -- these filed complaints in order to get more records and try to figure out how that money was used and whether it was being used for the good of students or being used to enrich managers of these companies slash schools. So this is another big issue in the charter world moving forward in terms of how much power the city will attempt to sort of claw back in looking at money that goes to these management companies.

  • 13:31:10

    NNAMDIEmma Brown is a reporter at the Washington Post. Thank you so very much for joining us.

  • 13:31:13

    BROWNThanks for having me.

  • 13:31:15

    NNAMDIKavitha, I know you have more questions and issues, but time is up. Kavitha Cardoza is a special correspondent for WAMU 88.5. Kavitha, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:31:23

    CARDOZAThank you, Kojo.

  • 13:31:24

    NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, "The Stager," author Susan Coll's satirical take on relationships and neighborhoods in Washington, D.C. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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