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D.C. Charter Schools Chair Talks Test Scores, Discrimination Allegations

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Brian Jones, D.C. Public Charter Schools board chairman.
Kavitha Cardoza
Brian Jones, D.C. Public Charter Schools board chairman.

WAMU: When you compare charter school test scores to traditional pueblo schools, at the elementary level, they're comparable, but at the secondary level, charter schools are 10 percentage points ahead in reading and the 16 percent points ahead in math. But the gap over the years is clearly narrowing. Does that concern you?

Jones: Obviously, we're mindful of the gap with DCPS, but at the end of the day, the competition matters a lot less than that we continue to improve.

WAMU: If DCPS continues to improve, why would someone choose a charter school? How do you differentiate this school system?

Jones: We do want to be able to offer a superior alternative, and that's why we're very focused on elevating the overall level of quality in the sector. But there are other differences. We have a lot of schools that have very unique missions, and that kind of diversity is a distinguishing characteristic of charter schools vis-á-vis DCPS.

WAMU: Special education advocates have filed a complaint with the Department of Justice alleging the city's charter schools discriminate against special education students. Special education student make up 11 percent of the population in the city's charter schools as opposed to 18 percent in traditional schools. How do you explain that?

Jones: Part of it has to do with the resources that charter schools can bring to bear, part of that has to do with some unique missions that charter schools serve. For example, if you've got a charter school that is highly focused on providing hospitality education, or arts education, the resources that those institutions can bring to bear to serve special ed students may be different.

That being said, I'm not satisfied that charter schools are where they need to be or really any schools in the district are where we all need to be in terms of making sure we have the capacity and the willingness to serve special ed kids.

WAMU: This is a criticism nationwide about charter schools, that they encourage families to look elsewhere, which is how some people say they're able to get such good results, because you're essentially selecting a population you want.

Jones: The principle challenge we have is how do we as the authorizer of these charter schools, identify when there's a problem. Each school is essentially its own district; we can go into a school and identify whether their policies and procedures comply with the law. But where the practical challenge comes for us, is if the policies and procedures are okay but in fact there are practices inside the schools.

Say, when a family comes in and is interested in exploring the school, and they're told with a wink and a nod that this probably isn't' the place for you and you ought to look at the school down the street. That's a very difficult thing for us to identify; our procedures aren't set up to be engaged at that level.

And so our challenge becomes one of educating parents. If you've got families that understand that's inappropriate, then they can come to us and say, 'hey, there's something going on in this school that that doesn't comply with the law,' and that gives us the ability to really follow up.

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