September 4, 2009 | Education Notebook on Education
Many D.C. students went back to school last week, including Mayor Adrian Fenty's twin sons, who began their first day as fourth graders in the D.C. public school system. In so doing, Fenty fulfilled a promise to send his children to District public schools once they reached fourth grade. However, the Washington Post reports that the Fenty family declined to enroll their children in West Elementary - their assigned public school - instead opting for Lafayette, which is, according to the Post, "one of the District's most coveted elementary schools."
If by enrolling his children in the D.C. Public School System Mayor Fenty wanted to send the message that the system is good enough for his children, and therefore, good enough for all D.C. children, exercising a choice denied to most District families was not the way to do it. Many D.C. families attempt to send their children to a public school other than their assigned school every year by wading through a daunting out-of-boundary placement process for a spot in a higher-performing public school. But the competitive nature of the process means most families are unsuccessful at securing an alternative.
No one faults the Mayor for wanting to make the best choices possible for his children - especially when it comes to education. A quick look into the performance records of West Elementary (the Fenty children's assigned school) and Lafayette Elementary (their chosen public school), paints a clear picture as to why the Mayor chose the later. Nearly 90 percent of children at Lafayette scored proficient in reading on the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System (D.C. CAS) test, compared with just 55 percent at West Elementary. The children at Lafayette are also clearly receiving better math instruction, with a full 88 percent scoring proficient in math, compared with a mere 38 percent of children at West.
While Mayor Fenty values choice for his own children, he has stood by silently while choice was taken away from the less affluent residents of his city. Fenty has remained more or less quiet on the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program, and the plight of 216 children who had their scholarships rescinded this spring. Since 2004, the scholarships, worth up to $7,500, have meant an effective education in a safe environment for District children - at half the cost of an "education" in the D.C. public schools. Yet, liberals in Congress, encouraged by the Obama administration's acquiescence, have taken steps over the past several months to effectively kill the successful program.
Fenty is not alone however in practicing school choice for his own children while doing little to offer such an opportunity to less affluent District parents. Forty-four percent of Senators and 36 percent of Representatives have at one time sent a child to private school. President Obama's children are enrolled in the posh Sidwell Friends School, and Education Secretary Duncan famously declared in Science when asked about his choice to live in Arlington, Virginia instead of D.C., "I didn't want to try to save the country's children and our educational system and jeopardize my own children's education."
It's not only academics but school safety that likely informed the Mayor's decision - and the decisions of numerous members of Congress, the President, and the Secretary of Education - to opt-out of the D.C. public schools. A recent report by The Heritage Foundation and the Lexington Institute revealed that police responded to more than 900 calls to 911 reporting incidents of violence at D.C. schools during the 2007-2008 school year, the vast majority of which took place in the public schools.
According to the report, 22 of the students who had their scholarships rescinded will now be attending four of the most dangerous schools in the District.
It's no wonder that the Mayor worked to ensure his children would be enrolled in the best school possible - within the confines of his promise to send them to a public school in the District. But it is little solace to the 216 students who have had that opportunity blocked. Many of them have been forced to return to dangerous schools devoid of academic rigor. The families of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program will continue to fight for their chance to receive a quality education this fall. Perhaps now that Mayor Fenty has navigated - albeit successfully - the tumultuous waters of D.C. public education, he will be more eager to lend a supportive voice the other families hoping for the same opportunity at a bright academic future.
Lindsey Burke is a Research Assistant in Domestic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation, www.heritage.org.