opinion | DC leaders must work together to promote equality for students

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Shannon Hodge is the founding Executive Director of the DC Charter School Alliance.

All schools in DC are facing enormous challenges as they work to serve students and close the gap between opportunities and outcomes that has widened during the pandemic. But for many schools, these challenges are exacerbated by chronic underfunding that is ingrained in our education system, with schools serving primarily communities of color bearing the brunt of this inequality.

That’s why leaders across the district — including in charter schools, DC Public Schools, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s (D) administration, and the DC Council — should focus on creatively and consistently promoting justice. That kind of collaborative effort, by working together and not against each other, is how we will close the gap between opportunity and results for all students.

Too often, the conversation about how to improve educational outcomes for students in our city centers on the distinction between charter schools and DC Public Schools schools. For example, some point to charter schools as the reason neighborhood high schools in wards 7 and 8 lag behind the rest of the city in academic achievement. Critics often point to data showing that most students living in Ward 3 (which do not have charter schools) attend their neighborhood schools, while most students in Wards 7 and 8 (which do not have charter schools) do not.

While that’s true, it’s too simplistic to cite mobility as evidence that parents in Wards 7 and 8 don’t have good options for their high school students. According to city data, the percentage of students attending high school in their neighborhood is about the same in wards 3 and 8 (57 percent versus 54 percent). Parents, no matter where they live, value the ability to decide which school best suits their child’s needs. The fact is, this feature is one of the best tools in DC’s public education system.

DCPS and charter schools are both public schools. And in reality, many DC students attend both types of schools or attend both types of schools. Both work hard to serve students in the district and improve their communities. And we don’t always get it right. That’s why we constantly need to ask ourselves what each student needs and what policies and programs can best meet those needs, so that we work on solutions that make every public school outstanding.

District leaders have the opportunity to increase equity in the 2023 budget, and the DC council is on track to deliver in key ways. Increasing the core funding rate for students, including adult learners, will allow schools to offer interventions that accelerate learning and give DC residents over the age of 16 the opportunity to gain the skills and credentials needed to support their families . And the Housing and Executive Board Committee recommended that the DC council expand the definition of first responders in the employer housing program to include teachers, allowing teachers to live in the communities they serve. We urged the full council to support this proposal, which will improve recruitment and retention by making it more affordable for educators in both industries to live in DC.

We also asked the DC Board to commission a new, comprehensive eligibility study to produce the data and recommendations needed to make sound policies and make funding decisions. We need this kind of creative, effective policy making to strengthen all of our schools and retain our best teachers.

Charter school leaders have pushed the DC Council and the Bowser administration on these priorities with the goal of accelerating learning equitably, centering students and their needs, while continuing to face the ongoing challenges posed by the pandemic to provide high quality education. These priorities benefit all public school students, both at charter schools and DCPS schools.

We need solutions that make every public school excellent. That’s why we need to work across sectors and with community leaders to ensure that justice is at the heart of everything we do.

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