Could the slowing economy benefit DC schools?
The DC public schools sure could use some positive news given the recent reports of declining enrollment and mediocre test scores. DCPS has launched a new $9,000 ad campaign, titled "Rediscover DCPS", to boast public confidence in the local school system. The first ad ran last month on WPGC (95.5 FM) with the tag line, "Go public and get a great free education!"
Whether the new campaign will encourage families to enroll their children in DCPS schools is uncertain. DCPS enrollments have declined from around 80,000 30 years ago to about 45,000 in 2009. In contrast, enrollment in charter schools continues to increase. The latest data showed a 14 percent increase over the last year, to 25,729.
While there are certainly many achievements that DCPS students, teachers, and the community at large should be proud of, the current economic climate may end up being the final catalyst that persuades families to consider public school. An interesting report from The New York Times indicates that families that originally planned on enrolling their children in expensive private schools are now considering the "charms" of public school. In the DC metro area, private schools have felt the effects of the economic crisis with declining enrollments and more parents asking for financial aid. Catholic schools in the District have been particularly hard hit, losing at least a thousand students in the last year.
Could DCPS also benefit from the economic slowdown? More importantly, are Michelle Rhee and her team positioning District schools to attract the attention of parents who may be searching for alternative options to expensive private schools or the promise of charter schools?
Not all public schools are created equal, and it is no coincidence that families often cite the quality of the local schools as a reason for moving to a particular neighborhood. In DC, Ward 3 has some of the highest property values, as well as some of the some of the best performing public schools like Key elementary, Oyster-Adams Bilingual School, and Woodrow Wilson Senior High. While parents who live outside Ward 3 school boundaries can apply for out-of-boundary placement, there are only so many slots open.
Clearly, the ability to "go public" and take advantage of some of the District's better public schools is out of reach for many families. How does this affect families living in the District? Do parents strapped for cash as well as trapped by their real estate situation find alternative ways to enroll their children in the District's better performing schools, such as renting apartment in a more desirable school zone or even establishing a fake address?
DCPS could benefit from a potential surge in public school interest if parents who can't get their children in the most desirable public schools start looking at schools on the fringes of wealthier neighborhoods. Parents may not only "rediscover" District schools, but may also rediscover often overlooked communities.
DC's schools face many challenges, and it will certainly take more than an ad campaign to get families to return. However, it should go without saying that improving the quality of local schools is an important issue for households in the District, with or without children, since well-regarded schools can attract residents, raise property values, and contribute to the general quality of life. That's an ad campaign that we should all be able to get behind.
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