D.C.’s academic trends reveal positive developments along with heartbreaking stagnation.
On the plus side, academic achievement scores today are far higher than they were in the 1990s. The District’s improvement on National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exams easily outpaces that of any state.
However, the vast majority of the gains have been achieved by children from middle- and upper-income families.
NAEP data on 8th grade math, for instance, show that gains for D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) students who qualify for a free or reduced price lunch closely mirror the national average over the last decade. But that’s nothing to write home about. Middle and high-income DCPS students demonstrated gains almost five times higher than the rate for similar students nationwide.
The result is an enormous gap between students on either side of the income scale. No other state or district participating in the NAEP remotely approaches D.C. with regard to the size of achievement gaps.
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Among low-income students, only those attending public charter schools demonstrated gains well above the national average. Poor children attending District charter schools achieved learning gains more than double that of their low-income counterparts attending D.C. Public Schools. Those gains become even more notable when you consider that charter schools receive considerably less revenue per pupil than public schools.
The U.S. Census Bureau identifies DCPS as leading the pack nationally in overall revenue per pupil. Yet, DCPS repeatedly ranks near the bottom, when compared to other urban districts participating in NAEP.
The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program gives low-income students the opportunity to attend a private school of choice. It has improved graduation rates by more than 20 percentage points. Unfortunately, the program faces a continued uphill struggle for its existence.
The Urban Institute has demonstrated that the D.C. private school sector is in deep decline, despite the existence of the Opportunity Scholarship Program. Studies have established that charter schools impact private school enrollment most heavily of all sectors.
From an equity standpoint, it’s difficult to justify the District’s school finance system. The system routinely provides $29,000 for high-income students attending regular public schools. It provides $14,000 for high-income students attending charter schools but only a maximum of $8,381 for some low-income students who would like to attend a private school system that improves the chances for graduation by approximately 21 percentage points.
Clearly, the K-12 status-quo gives the most to the kids starting with the most. This pattern is clear, whether discussing academic gains or dollars invested. We have clear success in the charter school and Opportunity Scholarship programs, but these programs receive substantially fewer dollars per pupil. D.C. has most certainly been better off with them, but they alone have not been enough. Tentative steps and half measures will not address the deeply disparate opportunities awaiting the District’s students.
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Instead of attempting to restructure or “reform” DCPS, policymakers should free District parents to reform education from the bottom up. To that end, Congress, which has jurisdiction over D.C., should reconfigure all education funding in the District of Columbia and establish an all-Education Savings Account district.
Instead of a funding system that remunerates regular public schools based on enrollment, funding for K12 education in DC could go directly into a parent-controlled education savings account. Parents would then be able to voluntarily contract with the schools and service providers of their choice, including regular public schools, charter schools and private schools.
District of Columbia academic measures clearly tell a tale of two cities: one prosperous and academically thriving; the other both poor and poorly served. The District’s system of school finance provides the most substantial aid to the sector least successful at aiding disadvantaged children.
Very serious discussion about giving all District parents full control over their education funds of their child should commence. In stark contrast with current practices, we should ensure the most opportunity for the kids who start with the least.
• Matt Ladner is senior adviser for policy and research at the Foundation for Excellence in Education (excelined.org). Lindsey M. Burke is the Will Skillman Fellow in Education Policy at the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).
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