DC’s Students Are Improving, But Not Fast Enough

Ashley Bateman Adjunct Scholar, Lexington Institute

Public school students in the District of Columbia improved their proficiency rates by just 1.4 percentage points in math and less than one point in reading, District leaders announced yesterday. Overall, 54 percent scored at proficient levels in math, and 50 percent in reading.

Awash in the nation’s highest school funding levels and waves of philanthropic support for school reform, Washington, DC should boast a public education environment reflective of success, innovation and opportunity. But despite consistent, modest gains driven by a number of high-achieving schools, student achievement citywide flounders; the lowest-income neighborhoods seem anchored to the lowest test scores.

Academic proficiency has increased in the last decade, incrementally and largely focused within certain schools, but not enough to close gaps for the next wave of graduates.

DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson recently lost negotiations with the Washington Teachers Union to extend the school day, stunting a student-centered reform with the potential to improve achievement and learning in city schools.

For students in Washington DC’s most underserved neighborhoods, opportunities to attend high-performing schools remain limited, and overlooked.

The nation’s capital serves a struggling student body; in one feeder pattern of elementary schools in Ward 8, more students scored at woeful “below basic” levels on last year’s standardized reading tests (31 percent) than scored at proficient or advanced levels (25 percent). The results were similar in math.

For families who earn less than 185 percent of the federal poverty line, a prevalent population in lower-performing wards, a limited number of spaces are available, hopefully expanding, in DC thanks to the city’s Opportunity Scholarship Program.

Synonymous with opportunity, vouchers offer parents the option to choose a non-traditional education for their child when funds would otherwise prove limiting.

A plan to update the program was recently proposed by U.S. Senator Tim Scott as a plank of his Opportunity Agenda.

In effect since 2004, the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program has proven an effective voucher model, reaching more than 5,000 low-income children in the nation’s capital. Considering the popularity of the program, Scott is looking to update provisions to the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results Act to ensure that funds reach those who would use them.

Furthermore, Scott’s improvements will not affect current participants, but funds carried over for various reasons would be reallocated to new scholarship awardees and, “parental education and assistance activities.”

Under the proposal, two percent of carry-over funds will be used to revitalize awareness campaigns and avenues to reach parents; a step forward in improving access and community support.  Effective outreach is essential. In 2012, only 505 of the 1300 applications for the program were found to meet income-based eligibility requirements. The systematic, organized outreach to help identify eligible participants and help them navigate the application process that proved critical in the program’s beginning must continue.

Last year fifty schools, mainly parochial institutions, offered slots to voucher participants. Two-hundred ninety-nine students were selected to receive funds through a lottery process in 2012, and in 2013, 1,556 voucher recipients were enrolled in participating schools.

As parents with children in troubled schools often tell me, time is not a commodity in education and a year is an eternity in K-12. Parents need options now.

Critics like to alarm taxpayers, arguing that funding private education drains city coffers for traditional public schools. But at the present rate of change in the lowest-performing public schools, current students will be long past their schooling years before even the most promising reforms will reach many of them. The tax dollars are for the students in the education system, not to the adults responsible for balancing budgets.

The District boasts a plethora of school models: faith-based, progressive, traditional, blended learning, boarding, international, college prep, and those specializing in serving special-needs students. Charter schools, which have outperformed city averages, offer valuable choices for 43 percent of students.

Average household income of participants, as last recorded by the OSP, was $21,086 and with this year’s scholarship amounts (up to $12,572 for high school students and $8,381 for elementary and middle school students), the chance to attend these institutions is an attainable reality.

Vouchers have not yet been proven to increase standardized test scores, but perhaps more importantly, they have been linked to higher graduation rates; rates that are linked to improved socioeconomic conditions and quality of life for those children even from the most challenging beginnings.

At present growth rates, it could take decades for DC Public Schools to produce satisfactory student performance levels.  The city needs a wave of quality choices, and every option offered to parents deserves serious consideration.