A look back and ahead on DC charter advocacy

Jun 14, 2020

Ramona Edelin, senior advisor for the DC Charter School Alliance, shares her thoughts on the role of advocacy in bettering the education of DC students. She is a lifelong advocate and former executive director of the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools, which she led for more than 14 years.

What do you hope the future of advocacy is for DC? 

Chartering is a governance model – not a type of school. The model enables independent, non-profit boards of directors to create new learning environments that will meet explicit accountability goals – or risk school closure. Schools set budgets, hire staff, select curricular and instructional methods, and manage classrooms, and can and must quickly make adjustments as needed to ensure their goals are met. Unencumbered by red tape or large bureaucratic and political forces, charter schools agree to be held to their stated goals or face the consequences. This model itself has great value, and advocacy for charter schools in DC includes explaining and defending this model, as well as sharing and defending the charter schools. 

What do you want to see for charter schools over the next decade? 

I want each school to have the capacity and resources to showcase its vision, its value, its methods, and be able to identify who it serves, why, how, and to what effect. In advocacy, the best strategy is QUALITY. So schools must be able to answer how they are approaching and succeeding in their work. Key questions are: What approach does this school organize learning around, how and why? What is working; for whom; under what conditions? Is the mission still aligned to internal and external realities? Is the school achieving its intrinsic goals? Is the school improving the academic performance and life chances of each and every one of its students? When student data is disaggregated, are all of the subgroups demonstrating academic growth at high levels? Is the school nurturing leaders and good citizens? What kinds of professional relationships do the adults in the school have and is the staff authentically functioning as a team? What best practices and promising trends does the school have to offer to others? 

When each of our schools can present such compelling profiles, the enormous value of charter schools will be abundantly clear. 

What gives you the most hope for the charter sector during this hard time? 

The stunning successes so many of our charter schools are having with students of color from impoverished backgrounds – who are the largest share of public school students in DC – give me great hope. 

Trapped in the vortex of centuries of racism, brutality and poverty, the African American community in DC remains at the bottom of the economic ladder and disproportionately suffers from health disparities, including the devastation of the current pandemic. Incarceration rates are highest and the educational opportunity and achievement gaps are the largest. Immigrant and Latino communities struggle against disproportionately adverse impacts of these entrenched travesties. 

Charter schools are changing the life trajectories of students from early childhood through adult education programs. Proficiency and growth, attendance, high school and GED graduation, certifications, citizenship, employment and business ownership have all increased, while suspensions, expulsions and dropping out have decreased.

My greatest hope is that these successes – these precious victories – will continue, will expand, will grow to scale, and will be shared so that all of our students will benefit.

What have been the biggest advocacy moments since the charter sector came to DC that we need to learn from? 

There have been many big advocacy moments, but two from which we can learn a great deal are the successful pushbacks around changes to facilities allotments and adverse rollout of the high-stakes Performance Management Frameworks.

When the executive branch proposed changes to the facilities allotment, DC charter schools and its many advocates and partners faced the financial inability to secure essential banking, lending, and bond covenants for schools and demanded an accounting of how the city spends funding for all public schools. Our advocacy led to the forming of the Public Education Finance Reform Commission, which recommended conducting an adequacy study, which found that funding between DC Public Schools and charter schools was unequal between the sectors (thus violating the law) and far too low in both sectors for what our students need. The School Reform Act requires equal and uniform funding among public schools in DC. This finding by our government, and the fact that the following education budget made no attempt to rectify this, led to filing a funding equity lawsuit as a last resort. Under the shadow of that lawsuit, charter schools received their fair pro rata share of funding increases for the first time, because the funding went through, rather than around, the funding formula. 

When DC charter school’s sole authorizer, the Public Charter School Board, wanted to launch a premature Performance Management Framework, before the assessment tool was ready. The charter sector (the schools, their communities, and advocates) demanded that accountability be accurate and aligned to what the city needed. The sector demanded meetings with the Board, including with expert opinions, and ensured that the Performance Management Framework rollout was delayed a year, to ensure that accountability would be done right. The work also led to ongoing working groups to review the Board’s policies and ongoing regular communications between the Board and charter schools.

The lesson of these cases is that progress begins with organization and strong support, and is backed by solid research and expertise, all pursued aggressively.

Why do all charter schools, leaders, parents and the community need to be advocates?

Every student, parent, family member, community member, policymaker, education journalist or commentator, as well as each elected official, needs to thoroughly understand the vision, mission, and methods of our charter schools. 

In a robust school choice environment, like here in the District of Columbia, everyone should know what the choices are and what they mean. Sunshine should make all of schools better – and when the light shines on poor performance or poor management, accountability is called for. We need more quality school seats, so thousands of students on waiting lists for charter schools can access schools of their choice. We also need access to the millions of square feet of public school buildings that are vacant or drastically underutilized. Threats to the model of independence and autonomy cannot go unchallenged. Public funding and resource allocations must be equal. Freedom. Funding. Facilities. These are the three permanent pillars of our advocacy.