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Time to Take Off the School Choice Training Wheels in D.C.

• Dr. Matthew Ladner

Punk-rock pioneers the Ramones created a new genre of music by speeding up 1950s doo-wop songs to under three minutes. I will attempt to follow in their footsteps by speeding up a new study I wrote for the Heritage Foundation on education in Washington, D.C. by giving you the highlights with pictures.

On the surface, Washington, D.C. has been making dramatic academic progress, especially in the charter school sector which now educates almost half of K-12 students in the District.

Math Scores improving in DC

These gains on NAEP are far larger than those of any state during the same period, but digging a little deeper shows that the vast majority of gains have been achieved by children from middle- and high-income families.

Math Scores Improvment Lage for Low-Income Children

Among low-income kids, only those attending charter schools see gains notably above the national average. A large part of the truly extraordinary gains seen among well-to-do D.C. students seems to be related to sophisticated parents finding open enrollment opportunities for high-performing district schools and charters in preference to moving to the suburbs in Maryland or Virginia. This is a complex phenomenon addressed at length in the study.

Worse still, even after 25 years of gains, District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) still ranks near the bottom in comparisons with other urban school districts.

DC City Test Scores for Students Whose Parents Did not Attend College

Average incomes and revenue per pupil both dwarf those in Detroit and have been increasing, and yet twenty five years into a reform process we see DCPS and Detroit in a dead heat for school district with the worst results for at-risk students.

Finally, despite the passage of the Opportunity Scholarship Program in 2004, private schooling is dying in D.C.

DC K-5 Grade Enrollment

Previous research has established that charter schools have a heavier impact on private schools than public schools. The D.C. charter school law operates effectively as a universal choice program—open to all students and reliably providing over $14,000 per student in revenue. By comparison the Opportunity Scholarship Program restricts eligibility and provides fewer pupil resources for children to attend private schools. Not surprisingly, private schools in D.C. have converted to charter status, and it would take a special type of bravery to open a private school in the District.

The overall picture is very mixed. D.C. has a vibrant and growing charter sector, and has enjoyed important and demonstrable academic gains as a result. It is incredibly important to the long-term health of the city that affluent parents do not automatically move to the suburbs. If they did, they would be taking their taxes with them.

On the other hand, district schools in D.C. show precious little improvement over the last decade outside of high-income students. It is an amazingly complex situation in D.C., full of both encouraging trends and heartbreaking disappointments visible in the data. If you would like to dive deeper, please do read the study. To wrap up our three minute song however—the ultimate conclusion is that the time has come for D.C. to take off the parental choice training wheels by embracing next generation model of Education Savings Accounts.



About the author

Dr. Matthew Ladner @MatthewLadner

Dr. Matthew Ladner is the Senior Advisor of Policy and Research for the Foundation for Excellence in Education. He previously served as Vice President of Research and Goldwater Institute. Prior to joining Goldwater, Dr. Ladner was director of state projects at the Alliance for School Choice. Dr. Ladner has written numerous studies on school choice, charter schools and special education reform. Most recently, Dr. Ladner authored the groundbreaking, original research Turn and Face the Strain: Age Demographic Change and the Near Future of American Education, outlining the future funding crisis facing America’s K-12 public education funding. He also coauthors the American Legislative Exchange Council's annual Report Card on American Education: Ranking State K-12 Performance, Progress and Reform. Dr. Ladner has testified before Congress, the United States Commission of Civil Rights and numerous state legislative committees. He is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and received both a Masters and a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Houston. Dr. Ladner is a Senior Fellow with the Foundation for Educational Choice. He lives in Phoenix, Arizona.