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Second Chance for School Choice

A quarter-century ago, Washington D.C. voters considered a ballot initiative to bring widespread school choice to the District.

When the initiative went down by a margin of 9-to-1, then-Mayor Marion Barry crowed that its defeat sent the message that “nobody ought to mess with our public schools.”

Since 1981, not messing with the District public schools has resulted in hundreds of thousands of largely low-income and minority children passing through a school system that left them with some of the lowest achievement rates and highest dropout rates in the nation.

In the 25 years since that vote, as many as 50,000 students have dropped out of D.C. high schools -- almost enough to fill RFK Stadium.

Twenty-five years later, D.C. parents are giving school choice a second look, and they like what they see. The result: sweeping education reforms that affect all District schools.

Today, the city’s 65 public charter schools enroll 20,000 children -- more than a quarter of the District’s total student body. These students learn in schools that are free from many regulations that govern traditional public schools but, in turn, must meet performance standards.

Charter schools have embraced this flexibility, adopting innovative education models.

For example, a KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) Academy in the southeast neighborhood has dramatically increased the tests scores of its largely low-income student population. The KIPP school was the highest performing middle school in the District last year. The Thurgood Marshall Public Charter High School in Anacostia, created by Georgetown Law graduates, focuses on college preparation and a career in law.

All 18 of the school’s first graduating class were admitted to college in 2005.

In addition, 1,700 children attend private schools using vouchers through the federally funded D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program. Research shows that opportunity scholarships have improved parents’ satisfaction with their children’s school. The Washington Scholarship Fund, which manages the voucher program, received nearly two applications for every available scholarship.

The school system has begun to respond to the competition. D.C. Schools Superintendent Clifford B. Janey recently announced plans to replace the current, top-down administration of the system with one designed to give public school leaders more autonomy. Principals would control as much as 90 percent of the money budgeted to their schools, as opposed to the current 60 percent, precisely so they could innovate and compete with charter schools.

The School Board is now moving to identify schools to be closed or consolidated. Thanks to all those students in charter or private schools, 147 D.C. school buildings are now underused, according to a recent report from the 21st Century School Fund. Meanwhile, seven new charter schools are scheduled to open in 2007. Those of us who support school choice welcome the fact that the D.C. public school system is taking these steps to innovate and improve in response to competition. We’re happy that the wheels of change seem poised to turn much faster in the next 25 years than they have since 1981.

Dan Lips is an education policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.