- 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.

Ward 7 education activist Alicia Rucker, a nurse whose five school-age children attend public schools, told me this weekend that “affluence,” “highly effective principals who get the teaching-and-learning job done” and a keen sense of priorities are common but key components of a “great school.”

“There are up to three teachers in a classroom at [some] charter schools, a best practice that reduces teacher-student ratio and gives students more face time with their instructors,” she said. “When I talk to an art teacher in Ward 3 with a budget of $6,000, I have to ask how many art teachers with similar budgets are in Ward 7.”

IFF already has crunched numbers for such metropolises as Chicago, Denver and St. Louis, as well as Milwaukee, ground zero in the school-choice movement. Those cities’ schools are typically characterized as either “performing” or “not performing.”

Meanwhile, PERC will officially begin pondering the affordability question Thursday.

If your head tilts to the right, remember that those to the left always color outside the lines. How else to explain the unique performance of Ward 3 schools, eh?

Deborah Simmons can be reached at dsimmons@washingtontimes.com.