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D.C. is a national model for school choice

The following is a guest commentary by Robert Cane, executive director of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools

National School Choice Week celebrates the growing number of effective education options for children nationwide and the expanding coalition of individuals and organizations that support them.. In the nation’s capital, for decades considered to have one of the worst urban public school systems in the US, school choice has transformed the educational landscape and brought high-quality options to once-chronically underserved communities.

In the latest data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the nation’s report card, D.C. Public Schools was the system with the greatest improvement of any U.S. urban district. And the District’s publicly-funded but independently-run charter schools, which now educate 44 percent of all D.C. students enrolled in public school, significantly outperformed the school system among students from low-income families.

Fourth grade students in D.C.’s public charter schools who qualify for free or reduced-price school meals scored, on average, nine percentage points higher in reading, and eight points higher in math, than their DCPS peers on the federal NAEP test. Eighth grade public charter school students eligible for federal lunch subsidies scored even better, outperforming their DCPS counterparts by 12 points in reading and 15 in math.

Alongside this federal data, new local statistics confirm the success of school choice. D.C. public charter schools’ on-time high school graduation rate increased by two percentage points, to 79 percent, in 2013. This is higher than the national average, and almost equal to Maryland and Virginia, even though D.C. charters serve a much more disadvantaged population. The DCPS rate also increased this year, up to 58 percent but still 21 points lower than D.C. charters.

These latest encouraging results confirm the recent trend in D.C.’s standardized tests: improving scores for students enrolled at both traditional and public charter schools, with charters leading the way. On D.C.’s standardized math and reading tests, charter students in wards 7 and 8—the District’s most disadvantaged—score on average 19 percentage points higher in reading and 25 points higher in math, than their fellow students in DCPS.

These wards, once burdened with the city’s worst public education outcomes, are now home to some of D.C.’s highest performing charter high schools that by dint of creativity and hard work see 100 percent of their graduating class accepted to college.

These encouraging results are a far cry from D.C.’s pre school-choice days. In the mid-1990s, half of the school system’s students dropped out before graduating. Academics and safety were rated among the worst in the nation. Schoolhouses lay derelict thanks to falling enrollment.

The popularity of these programs is not in doubt: last school year public charter schools received 22,000 more applications than they had seats. Smaller in scale, the D.C. voucher program nevertheless got six applications for every place available. For the first time this school year, enrollment in public education increased—charter and traditional combined—thus reversing decades of decline.

Key to D.C.’s success is the School Reform Act, which in 1996 enabled the first charter schools to open. These publicly-funded, tuition-free public schools are open to all D.C. resident students and have the authority to choose their own instructional methods, hire and fire teachers as needed, and control their finances. While enjoying autonomy over their curriculum and finances, charters are held strictly accountable for improved student performance.

The explosive growth in charter schools in the District and the concomitant decline in DCPS enrollment finally forced the D.C. mayor and council to address DCPS’s woeful performance. Taking its cue from New York City, the D.C. Council placed DCPS under mayoral control. Two school reformers—first the no-nonsense Michelle Rhee and then her deputy, Kaya Henderson—were appointed Chancellor. DCPS enrollment has now stabilized, accountability for results has increased, and standardized test scores have improved.

This week, let’s celebrate the success that school choice has brought students in D.C.—especially the most disadvantaged. This success was achieved over the last 18 years in an environment characterized by official disdain and, at times, hostility. Just imagine the transformation that will take place if politicians, like parents, get on board.