On Monday, presidential hopeful Sen. Elizabeth Warren released her plan to revamp K-12 education. Funded by her proposed wealth tax, the $800 billion overhaul would do little to actually enhance the current system. It takes aim at charter schools and voucher programs in the hopes of ending federal funding for their expansion and banning for-profit charters entirely. Meanwhile, Ms. Warren wants to increase federal funding for traditional public schools by $450 billion.
Ms. Warren’s one-size-fits-all education scheme would undo the progress that millions of American schoolchildren have seen with educational options. For proof, one need look no further than right here in the District of Columbia. School choice has pushed D.C.’s education system back from the brink, providing promise for a brighter future to thousands of students.
As they are everywhere, the educational needs of D.C.’s schoolchildren are diverse and multifaceted. Whether it’s a safer environment, a modified approach to teaching that accommodates disabilities or simply a need for a more convenient school location, any one family’s schooling needs are never quite the same as the next. Of course, politicians like Ms. Warren don’t seem to care, assuming that strangers and bureaucrats in Washington can make better decisions for children than parents. It’s arrogance of the highest order.
Plenty of parents are seeking greater control of their child’s education by turning to school choice alternatives — often with excellent results. In 2004, Congress established the first federally-funded private school voucher program here in D.C., allowing parents to use public funds earmarked for their children’s education for enrollment in private schools. It was a wild success. The program significantly improved students’ chances of graduating from high school and raised parents’ ratings of school safety and satisfaction.
For decades, D.C.’s public school system has been plagued with violence, administrative and reporting fraud, and plain inefficacy. Only 42 percent of public school seniors were on track to graduate as of March 2018, while D.C.’s charter graduation rate for 2017 was 73.4 percent.
During the 2011-12 school year, over half of the 336 incidents of reported daytime gunfire happened within 1,000 feet of a public school. The only option for a parent wishing to move their student to a safer public school was to enter a citywide lottery. This is a system of school placement where students wishing to attend a school other than the one assigned to them by neighborhood must enter to be randomly selected for new placement. As of May 2019, the D.C. charter system had a waitlist of nearly 11,000.
D.C.’s public schools are so bad that Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson infamously chose to transfer his own daughter from her assigned public school, Duke Ellington School of the Arts, to the far academically superior Woodrow Wilson High School. Mr. Wilson abused his power as schools chancellor to bypass the city’s lottery system and fast-track his daughter’s admission, placing her ahead of more than 600 students on the waiting list at Woodrow Wilson. If the public school chancellor can’t even support the public school system, how can D.C. parents?
Charter schools and voucher programs provide an alternative that allows for a freer environment, where students aren’t hindered by regulations around location or preset state curricula. Charter schools give students greater support, teachers the creative freedom to teach outside of mandated curricula and parents the power to choose their child’s educational path. This is particularly beneficial for students who need individual support like one-on-one time with teachers, or for parents who are interested in having a tight-knit community of invested parents.
The element of choice plays a big role, too. Students in federally-funded public schools are there because of their ZIP Code, but everyone in charter schools and voucher programs made the conscious choice to be there or has a parent actively invested in their education.
From school violence to graduation rates to parent satisfaction, school choice in D.C. and the rest of the nation has triumphed where public schools have failed. Politicians like Ms. Warren may want to shun this gleaming testament to central planning’s failure, but pulling funding and banning school choice would mean removing what has proven successful in favor of doubling down on what has continually failed. In Ms. Warren’s race to glorify federal solutions to what’s wrong in the nation, she’s willfully turning a blind eye to what’s going on right in her own backyard.
• Rachel Tripp is a Young Voices Education Fellow writing from Washington, D.C.