When Public Officials Go Bad: School Choice For Me, Not For Thee


Daniel Garza President, Libre Initiative
Font Size:

An outrageous story of government corruption in the nation’s capital threatens to cast a shadow over an important school choice program.

An investigation by the Washington, D.C. inspector general found that former chancellor of D.C. Public Schools Kaya Henderson helped seven well-connected parents bypass the competitive school lottery system.

The lottery allows families who are not satisfied with their local school, or who wish to enroll their children in pre-kindergarten, to apply to up to 12 traditional public and charter schools. The top schools boast waiting lists stretching into the hundreds and admission rates that rival Ivy League universities.

It’s a travesty that an official had the audacity to abuse her power multiple times and violate the impartiality of this system, as the inspector general found. But her actions should not cause us to doubt the enduring value of the lottery, a school choice program that serves as an important lifeline for thousands of low-income students in the District. If anything, her willingness to break the rules to get kids into schools of their choice should lead to a debate on expanding the program.

The sad fact is that D.C. schools remain some of the worst in the nation. A 2015 report found low academic achievement and graduation rates, as well as stark achievement gaps across student groups. The report also found inadequate monitoring of students with disabilities and English language learners.

In a city littered with failing schools, choice becomes paramount. Unsurprisingly, more and more families each year are applying to enroll their kids in better schools through the lottery system. In 2017, a total of 22,050 families applied, and 12,339 were matched with one of their top three choices.

School choice enjoys strong support among Latinos and other minorities who might otherwise be locked into a subpar school. A 2017 poll by the American Federation for Children found that fully 75 percent of Latinos support school choice, as well as 72 percent of African Americans. A separate poll by the Pew Research Center found that improving the educational system is Latinos’ top priority for Trump and Congress in 2017.

The demand is there because school choice produces results. The District’s charter schools graduate more kids from high school compared to traditional public schools, and they outperform them on college acceptance by about 10 percentage points. And standardized testing shows that charter school students score higher in Math and English. That’s despite the fact that charter schools in D.C. receive thousands less funding per pupil compared to traditional schools.

School choice also helps match students to the school that best suits their individual needs and aspirations. That is especially critical for students with disabilities – whose local school may not be equipped to accommodate their needs – or students seeking a specialized course of study, like foreign language instruction.

A common argument, repeated ad nauseam by teachers’ unions, is that public schools simply require more funding to adequately serve each student. That argument falls flat on its face in D.C., which spent over $18,000 per student in 2014 – more than any state besides New York.

The fact that charter schools achieve better results with less funding should make us doubly skeptical of these claims.

School choice has proven to be a better solution, but it must be done in a way that’s fair and transparent. Even a perception that the system is rigged to favor the powerful could drive away parents who fear they won’t get a fair shake. Government officials should never have the power to circumvent the lottery to benefit the powerful and well connected, and the Washington, D.C.’s mayor is right to implement new ethical safeguards against this sort of nepotism.

But we cannot let this headline-grabbing scandal obscure the importance of school choice, which is expanding opportunities for thousands of students each year. Our representatives in Congress should continue to support school choice programs in the nation’s capital.

Daniel Garza is president of The LIBRE Initiative.