Editorial: D.C.’s charter and public schools need to coordinate efforts in locating campuses

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By Editorial Board July 22 at 8:26 PM

PLANS BY a well-regarded charter school organization to open a science-themed school in the District near a similarly themed traditional school has angered some school system officials. That’s not surprising since competition generally tends to make people feel threatened. But competition is also healthy, spurring extra effort and better performance. That, in fact, has been one effect of the burgeoning charter school sector on public education in the city, and it is why proposals to limit charter schools should be rejected.

The move by Harmony Public Schools, a Houston-based network known for its high-performing college preparatory schools, to open an elementary school with a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) focus across the street from Langley Elementary was criticized as an inefficient use of taxpayer dollars by D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson. “Either we want neighborhood schools or we want cannibalism, but you can’t have both,” she told The Post’s Emma Brown.

Ms. Henderson stressed to us she is not advocating cutting down on quality charters, only that there should be cooperation and collaboration so that the entire educational needs of the city are served. It is hard to argue against cooperation, but it must be a two-way street. The fact is that D.C. officials — despite some improvement under Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) — have not been as helpful as they could be in providing appropriate facilities for charters. Harmony officials detailed a frustrating search for space that is typical of the experience of other public charter schools, even though there are many empty or soon-to-be empty school buildings in the District.

We think the concerns about Harmony’s location are overblown. The building previously housed a parochial school and there are advantages when schools are located near each other. But the case certainly demonstrates the need for better communication between the two education sectors. It is absurd, for example, that Ms. Henderson learned of Harmony’s new home via Twitter and that Harmony superintendent Soner Tarim had no idea that Langley is also a STEM school. Why isn’t there a common view of which neighborhoods might best be served with charters? Shouldn’t there be a coordinated effort to locate schools there?

When the charter sector was seen as more of an educational boutique, the city could get away with it operating in a silo. But now that some 44 percent of public school students attend charters, a smarter approach is needed. On the table must be examination of whether charters should offer neighborhood preference and whether there should be modifications in the charter approval process.

That doesn’t mean putting a cap on charters. Preventing Harmony from taking up shop next door would not make the underperforming Langley — where fewer than half the students are proficient in reading and math — a better school. Indeed, we suggest that Harmony’s launch could help. Not only does it have a proven record of success in STEM education from which the traditional school could learn, but it also would provide it with an incentive to do better.

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