Expand School Choice in DC

COMMENTARY Education

Expand School Choice in DC

Jul 3rd, 2019 4 min read
COMMENTARY BY
Jude Schwalbach

Research Assistant, Center for Education Policy

Jude is a research assistant in education policy at The Heritage Foundation.
School choice has found success in the nation's capital through the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. Weedezign/Getty Images

Families in the nation’s capital deserve a choice about educating their children.

This year, Congress has the chance to make changes to the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program–up for reauthorization–that could positively affect the future of D.C. children for decades to come. 

The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program provides scholarships to cover private school tuition for low-income children in the nation’s capital.  

The scholarship program has been a major success for participating students. Scholarship recipients have a chance to learn in safe environments, escaping dangerous schools, sexual harassment, and bullying. Scholarship students are performing as well as their public school counterparts on tests of academic achievement for one-third of the cost. And they are graduating at a rate of an estimated 21 percentage points higher than their peers who applied for, but did not receive, a scholarship. 

Yet opponents of school choice argue that greater educational choice is unnecessary since there are excess seats in D.C. Public Schools. According to The Washington Post, Washington’s deputy mayor of education, Paul Kihn, said, “The city has more than 5,000 empty high school seats and more than 3,600 available middle school slots” in public schools.

The empty seats, however, are the result of parents looking for an alternative to the traditional public school system. 

In fact, 3,294 new and returning students applied for an opportunity scholarship this school year, for 1,645 available spaces in the program. To date, 24,351 students have applied for a scholarship through the Opportunity Scholarship Program, and 10,701 available scholarships have been provided since it launched in 2004.  

In addition to many more families applying to the Opportunity Scholarship Program than available vouchers, there are more than 11,861 children on the charter school wait list in the District. It’s a clear sign that families want options.

Parents are understandably seeking out better educational options for their children. Just two in 10 eighth grade students in D.C. Public Schools are proficient in reading or math, as shown on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. 

Unsurprisingly, in 2017 the District of Columbia had the second lowest attainment rate nationwide with only 73 percent of seniors graduating. But last year, District of Columbia attainment rates plummeted to 68.5 percent after an Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) report found that schools failed to properly report pervasive truancy. 

Perhaps even more concerning, District of Columbia public schools are dangerous. Children regularly self-reported skipping school because they felt unsafe. Their absences are understandable as 30 percent report being bullied at school, and one in 10 report being threatened with a weapon or injured on school property. 

And political elites know the perils of D.C Public Schools. 

In fact, Jimmy Carter was the only president in office to enroll his child in a D.C. public school in the last century. No one should begrudge a president for choosing the best school for his child, but good education and healthy learning environments should be available to all children, not just those whose parents can afford to pay twice: once in taxes for the public system and a second time to pay private school tuition. 

As Patrick Wolf, a professor of education at the University of Arkansas, said, “When it comes to education, how far you go matters more in life than how much you know, so educational attainment is the best measure of the effectiveness of a choice program.” 

Education choice in the District is delivering on that score.

Wolf’s comment supports work done by Ron Haskins, Elizabeth Sawhill, and Brad Wilcox on the success sequence. Haskins found that individuals who “finish high school, get a full-time job, and wait until age 21 to get married and have children” are far more likely to join the middle class.

Brookings’ Richard Reeves notes that one factor preventing greater success among minority children is the fact that they “attend worse schools, in part because local tax and property laws prevent their parents from moving to neighborhoods with better schools.”

The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, however, breaks down this barrier that would otherwise bar many low-income and minority children from better education by breaking the link between housing and schooling. 

So what should the next steps be for the successful D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program? As my colleague Lindsey Burke suggests:

  • “Funding for the Opportunity Scholarship Program, which currently stands at $17.5 million, is insufficient to pay for the program and to increase access for more students. In the near term, it should be increased to at least $25 million to pay for projected increases in student participation.”
  • “It should be formula-funded to create stability for participating private schools and families.”
  • “The accreditation regulations should either be removed entirely, or schools should be given a five-year grace period to meet the requirements (instead of having to be accredited upon program entry), and/or the list of allowable accreditors should be significantly expanded to reflect the diversity of schools that would like to participate.”

And the 11,861 children on the charter school waitlist should be made eligible for a D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program voucher in the future. Such an expansion would create massive new educational opportunity for D.C. families.

This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal