- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 27, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

OK school-choice advocates. It’s time to go old-school this week as the Gray administration begins drawing up a school-closure list and as the new panel charged with examining the education-affordability factor holds its first session.

Ordinarily, the first few rounds of such who-gets-what budget cycles are colorful lessons about adults playing nice with their Crayolas and water-soluble paints. And they are largely tugs of war between two familiar sets of opponents — charter-school proponents and public-school traditionalists vs. reform-minded advocates and static teachers unions.

But this year it’s a paint-by-numbers game, courtesy of the popular federal voucher law that Congress passed and President Obama signed earlier this year.

With a few slight-of-hand strokes, Mr. Obama set in motion a dynamic that uses a broad brush to define public education and a less-pedestrian approach in the bricks-and-mortar sense.

Enrollment numbers portray in the clearest of pictures that parents want a more choice-centric approach.

• The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program provided vouchers for about 1,000 students in 2004, its first year.

That number rose to more than 1,900 in 2007, when funding was cut off. But now, with bipartisan backing, more than 1,600 underprivileged youths are participating in the program, which allows low-income students to attend the private school of their parents’ choosing.

That 745 of these students are new to the program means parents are embracing this game-changing approach and that 1,600 fewer youths are attending public schools.

• Enrollment in public charter schools is soaring as well. Unaudited numbers show a 9 percent increase in this oldest of D.C. school-choice options, with 32,000 students currently enrolled, compared with more than 29,300 last school year. Overall, charters educate 41 percent of D.C. youths.

• Traditional public schools also had a measurable rise in enrollment, with unaudited numbers at an estimated 46,200. Much of the increase was a result of the universal pre-kindergarten programs pushed largely by Democrats, including Mr. Obama and Mayor Vincent C. Gray.

But other numbers also come into play. Recommendations on school closings due this week from the mayoral-commissioned Illinois Facilities Fund (IFF), which focused on individual schools’ test scores, will be delivered to the Public Education Reform Commission (PERC), whose primary charge from City Hall is to dig deeply into all funding issues.

Parents whose children attend schools in the city’s wealthiest ward have little to worry about at this juncture, because none of its schools is ranked as an underperformer on test scores.

But stray far or near from Rock Creek Park and parents are at the ready to discuss why underperforming schools in each of the city’s other seven wards faces grayer prospects.

The number of designated underperforming schools: Ward 1, eight schools; Ward 2, three; Ward 4, 11; Ward 5, 11; Ward 6, 11; Ward 7, 20; and Ward 8, 20.

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