Greater Greater Washington

Education


DC needs school choice, not vouchers

The Washington Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP), known informally as the DC school voucher program, was passed by Congress to subsidize private school attendance for low-income students in DC.


Photo by HowardLake on Flickr.

The goal is to provide opportunities for the low-income students to leave low-performing district schools to attend private schools. The program has passionate supporters who testified on its behalf on the Hill recently.

It has been the subject of a rigorous evaluation by the U.S. Department of Education's research arm, which found mixed results. The program had no impact on student test scores but a positive impact on graduation rates (82 person with a voucher offer graduating versus 70 percent in the control group).

So why is it a bad idea? There are three reasons.

1. DC is already a school choice Mecca. We're the last places that needs the OSP.

A blogger for the National Review wrote that reauthorizing this program will "breathe life back into school choice in the nation's capital." Huh?

Poor kids in DC have a richer set of schools to choose from than almost any other city in the country. More than 40 percent of DC's schoolchildren attend schools of choice, mostly through charter schools, but also through the public school choice program within DC Public Schools known as the Out of Boundary transfer program.

The array of options and degree of innovation in DC's charter movement is stunning, ranging from a "Hospitality High" vocational high school to residential programs like SEED, from public policy themed schools like Cesar Chavez to a Chinese immersion International Baccalaureate elementary school.

We have KIPP schools, Lighthouse schools, and Friendship Academies. We have award-winning schools like the Thurgood Marshall Academy in Anacostia and E.L. Haynes in Petworth. We have bilingual schools like LAMB and Oyster. Parents clamor to get into popular DCPS schools like Stoddert in NW and the "cluster schools" on Capitol Hill.

And 19 new charter applicants are in the pipeline to be approved, expanding the choices even further. There is lots of room for improvement, but DC has an embarrassment of school choice riches.

2. The OSP lacks broad local support and political legitimacy.

Another problem with locating the voucher program in DC is that the site selection for the program is not dictated by a public policy need, but pure convenience. Because of a quirk on the US Constitution, Congress can legislate policy in the District of Columbia without seeking consent from its residents.

To be sure, there are strong local advocates for the OSP: families who stand to gain $7,500 per year, city leaders who want the extra funding for district and charter schools that comes with the program, and the supporters of the Catholic and other private schools whose tuition is offset by the scholarships.

These constituency groups would be created in any subsidy market. But why DC? And how much support does the program have from the broader community of residents and taxpayers in DC? We simply don't know.

The locally elected City Council hasn't voted on it. There has been no ballot referendum. The one locally elected representative to the Congress, non-voting Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, opposes the program. But none of that matters in the strange world of taxation without representation.

3. Public subsidies should come with public accountability.

It seems like a fair proposition that if a school receives public money it should be held accountable for results, even if it is not required to follow any of the regulations of a typical public school. That, in fact, is the premise behind charter schools.

Charters in DC do not have to hire unionized or even certified teachers. They do not have to use the same textbooks or curriculum as DCPS. They can innovate in their staffing models, their methods of instruction, and their school culture, carving out distinct identities and philosophies without seeking central office approval.

In exchange, they must demonstrate that they are teaching children the basic skills set forth in the DC state standards. They do so by participating in the state assessment system known as DC-CAS. They also cannot charge tuition or discriminate in their student admissions. Over-subscribed schools are filled by lottery.

On the other hand, Catholic schools and other private schools in DC do not have to keep up this end of the bargain. They are not accountable for the academic success of their students and they can use tuition and selective admissions to shape their student body as they wish.

Furthermore, unlike publicly funded schools, they can practice religion (80 percent of OSP students attended religious schools in 2008-2009). All of that is fine until they start accepting $7,500 per student through the Opportunity Scholarship Program. At that point, the schools become quasi-public entities but unlike charter schools, with no strings attached.

There are policy alternatives.

Providing educational opportunity for disadvantaged students is a critically important policy goal, but a voucher program in DC is not in the public interest. Instead, there are two policy options that OSP advocates might want to pursue.

First, if they want to keep the program alive, they should seek to move it to Ohio or Connecticut, the home state of the Congressional sponsors, or some other state where the voters can weigh in on whether school vouchers are a good policy and where you can demonstrate a real need to jumpstart school choice.

Second, if policymakers want to promote school choice and educational opportunities for disadvantaged students in DC, they should support policies that affect school site selection, affordable housing, and transportation, i.e. the factors that influence the commuting distance for low-income families and hence their access to school options.

Currently, it is very costly and difficult for charter schools to locate near the city center or near transit nodes. A much more direct method than vouchers for enhancing all forms of school choice would simply be to provide more school bus transportation and more generous facilities funding conditional on site selection that provides easy access to low-income communities.

Steven Glazerman is an economist who studies education policy and specializes in teacher labor markets. He has lived in the DC area off and on since 1987 and settled in the U Street neighborhood in 2001. He is a co-founder of Washington Yu Ying public charter school and is a Senior Fellow at Mathematica Policy Research, but any of his views expressed here are his own and do not represent Yu Ying or Mathematica. 

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congress is wasting money, the fed gov't already spends money of schools in DC so should they be force feed the school vouchers

by Jerome on Feb 25, 2011 12:23 pm • linkreport

After 30 years of living in this city and seeing absolutely no traction with improvement made except in the past 3-4 years I disagree with this analysis. If DCPS was capable of properly educating the vast majority of it's charges, it would have. All of the charter schools came here as a result of voucher money being available. Before it was available, there were almost no choices. Also, DCPS did not begin implementing "choice" schools until faced with the prospect of losing children to private options. MoCo has had magnet/choice schools for 30 years. Also, there are not enough DCPS "choice" schools to get every child out of an under performing school. 30:1 applicants to slots in many cases.

The standardized testing of all schools within district boundaries regardless of governing organization is a a good point, but the Catholic High Schools within the district boundaries have been matriculating students in colleges for YEARS. Saying that they are unaccountable and have no standards is laughable. Parents make the evaluations with their checkbooks and are happy with the results. Universities are happy with the quality. Other benefits of parochial instruction include strong character development and molding which is absent if not banned from DCPS.

The statement where you mention that there is no local support is the kicker. There is no local support by DC's union backed elective representatives. There is plenty of support among the distraught parents of DC school aged children and the numbers speak for themselves in this regard.

by ahk on Feb 25, 2011 12:27 pm • linkreport

I take a very oft-cited GOP position on these types of things. I don't believe that vouchers or charter schools are the primary factor in a child's education. The number one factor is family involvement.

In my opinion, the primary reason charter and private school students in DC do better than their DCPS counterparts is because their parents actually care enough to try and do something to better educate their children. Those parents who could care less may simply choose to leave their kids an under-performing DCPS school where standards lapse and expectations are low for the students who remain.

There are many success stories of students who perform amazingly well despite their environment... Sure, there are stories highlighted in the media of an amazing teacher or principal that encourages students to succeed, but 9 times out of 10 its the child's family that made the difference, not the choice of school.

by Adam L on Feb 25, 2011 12:42 pm • linkreport

Vouchers are a backdoor for state sponsorship of religion and religious schools. Voucher supporters like to give lip service to quality of education, better teachers, etc., but it's all about Jesus really.

by aaa on Feb 25, 2011 12:57 pm • linkreport

I don't see why vouchers are not equivalent to providing a choice. With a voucher, the parents get to exercise their choices while staying in the city, rather than moving or paying through the nose for private school.

by SJE on Feb 25, 2011 1:06 pm • linkreport

About 5 years ago they calculated that the average DCPS student cost 25K a year. Are the taxpayers getting good value for money?

by SJE on Feb 25, 2011 1:08 pm • linkreport

@Adam L,

Amen to that brotha!

by HogWash on Feb 25, 2011 1:16 pm • linkreport

@Adam

The problem is how you lift a child out of the mess created by their parents? Assuming you can't legally do anything to affect change with a parent, how do you give their child even a sliver of a better outcome?

I think the answer is a quality boarding school. If nothing else the child gets proper nutrition and a sane environment in which to sleep and study.

On the other side of the coin, if we assume that kids will be no better than their parents, why have any type of teacher hiring standard? If teachers cannot effect change, then we should dispose of credentialing and move to a day care program.

That's the gotcha of the "parent responsibility" philosophy.

by eb on Feb 25, 2011 1:22 pm • linkreport

Because of a quirk on the US Constitution, Congress can legislate policy in the District of Columbia without seeking consent from its residents.

from M-W.com

Definition of QUIRK
1a : an abrupt twist or curve b : a peculiar trait : idiosyncrasy c : accident, vagary
2: a groove separating a bead or other molding from adjoining members

I'd say it's by design and not a quirk. Unless you think the Bill of Rights is a quirk too.

by Lance on Feb 25, 2011 1:30 pm • linkreport

What does the Bill of Rights have to do with the District of Columbia?

If Congress wants control over DC, then let's have them pony up the money and run the city. If they don't, then butt out and give DC complete local control. The current system is neither here nor there - DC doesn't get the support that a Nation's Capital should, yet they still have to deal with Congressional meddling.

And that's just home rule - none of that addresses the completely indefensible lack of voting representation in Congress.

by Alex B. on Feb 25, 2011 1:34 pm • linkreport

@ahk, there are one or two sentences in your comment that are not incorrect, but it's hard to find them in the blizzard of errors.

1. Charter schools came here because Congress mandated DCPS open a certain number of charter schools each year.

2. Vouchers have *nothing* to do with charter schools. Charter schools are *free.* Nobody needs a voucher to attend a charter school.

3. Before the voucher program, there was universal out-of-boundary open enrollment in all DC schools, as there is now. For all the 30 years you've lived here, parents have had choices. Have you heard anything about Hardy Middle School? The positive story of Hardy is the story of open-enrollment and choice, and that story was built in the years before the "past 3-4 years." The negative story of Hardy occurred in the past 3-4 years.

4. Name a Catholic high school in DC that does a better job of matriculating graduates to excellent universities than Banneker and Walls do. You can't. Add in Wilson, Ellington, soon Eastern HS--there should be more public high schools that succeed, but there is not *none* that succeed.

5. I'd feel a lot better about the Catholic option for elementary students if I had not just seen the Archdiocese make a sweetheart deal with DCPS to turn almost all the Catholic elementary schools in the district into charter schools.

DCPS has a good story to tell, over a lot longer time period than "the past 3 to 4 years," improving elementary schools, developing pre-K programs, etc.--not just at regular public schools, but some charters, as well.

My two dumpling darlings are in college now. They are products of DCPS, and arrived at college very well prepared to succeed scholastically. The biggest problem I felt they faced in DCPS was the constant badmouthing of DCPS by ill-informed people parrotting, with no evidence, something they heard somewhere.

The voucher program has no accomplishments to point to. If vouchers worked, the Archdiocese would not have shuttered almost all its classrooms and turned down the vouchers, preferring to get on the charter school gravy train.

by Trulee Pist on Feb 25, 2011 1:45 pm • linkreport

@lance: The District Clause (in Article I, not the Bill of Rights) gives Congress exclusive authority over a district for the protection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, Dockyards, and other needful Buildings.

Apparently the district clause did not anticipate 600,000 taxpaying American citizens residing in such a district and being deprived of the same rights of representation in the Congress as residents of the states. I would call that a "peculiar trait : idiosyncracy : accident, vagary", i.e. a quirk. If you don't think it was accidental, then I suggest reading Federalist Paper No. 43.

By the way, since you brought up the Bill of Rights, the First Amendment prohibits Congress from passing any law to establish religion, which has historically been interpreted to mean no government funding for religious education.

@sje I thought of, but failed to include, the cynical argument in favor of the voucher program, which I am somewhat sympathetic to: If you don't care what the schools are actually doing, then the voucher program could be a great deal for DC from a fiscal perspective. Use federal money to draw kids out of public schools (which might cost upwards of $15,000 each on the margin) by spending half of that on their private school tuition. Thus the District comes out ahead by not having to pay for the voucher users. Of course some of the voucher users would have opted out of DC public schools anyway, but still, it's all net budgetary gain. Big "if" in there though, regarding what the schools do (see comment by @aaa)

by Steven Glazerman on Feb 25, 2011 1:53 pm • linkreport

@Trulee Pist

Well said (not that I agree with every single point). But you're absolutely right. I was able to send my kid to DCPS 4 years ago because of the generations of hard work of previous teachers, administrators, and parents like yourself. Not all of them, and at times maybe not even most of them, but enough that many children have been well educated and that a base exists to continue improvement.

by TimK on Feb 25, 2011 1:55 pm • linkreport

Given that, statistically speaking, the DCPS does a poorer job educating its students than other jurisdictions with students of similar socio-economic backgrounds, it's hard to argue in favor of them. Trulee and TimK's kids might have done fine, but odds are they underperformed their peers in similar households and backgrounds in other school districts.

by JustMe on Feb 25, 2011 2:02 pm • linkreport

Real school choice in the district would involve allowing students to attend high schools in Montgomery County or NoVa.

by JustMe on Feb 25, 2011 2:02 pm • linkreport

I just want to make the point that this article is very poorly written. Please don't delete my comment for suggesting that the quality of this report does not to GGW justice. I'm sure the author meant well but it bothers me that I expect at least a coherent argument out of this blog and this is a poorly structured, wandering monologue.

by Annapolis on Feb 25, 2011 2:14 pm • linkreport

There is a House hearing on the vouchers program next Tuesday at 9:30 am. As always, open to the public. As you can guess by who is on the panels, this is simply a kangaroo hearing. I'm surprised Gray's people argeed to this.

SUBCOMMITTEE ON HEALTH CARE, DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, CENSUS AND THE NATIONAL ARCHIVES
THE HONORABLE TREY GOWDY, CHAIRMAN

The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship: Keeping the Door Open

Date: Tuesday, March 1st, 2011

Start Time: 9:30 a.m.

Location: 2154 Rayburn House Office Building

Title: The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship: Keeping the Door Open

Witnesses:
Panel I

• Mr. Ronald Holaisse
Senior at Archbishop Carroll High School, and DC OSP recipient since the 6th grade

• Ms. Lesly Alvarez
An 8th grade student at Sacred Heart School, and a DC OSP recipient

• Ms. Sheila Jackson
Mother of an OSP student, Shawnee, who is in the 10th grade at Preparatory School of DC.

• Ms. Latasha Bennett
Single mother of two children. Nico receives an Opportunity Scholarship, while Nia was one of the 216 students whose scholarship was retracted; however, through donations her family receives, Nia is able to attend the same school as her brother.

• The Honorable Vincent Gray
Mayor of DC

Panel II

• Mr. Kevin Chavous
Chairman, Black Alliance for Education Options

• Dr. Patrick Wolf
Professor and 21st Century Chair in School Choice, Department of Education Reform
University of Arkansas

• Ms. Betty North (invited)
Principal and CEO of the Preparatory School of DC

Description: This hearing will examine how the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program expanded educational options for low-income District residents. H.R. 471, the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results ACT (SOAR Act), a bi-partisan bill to reauthorize the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, was introduced by Speaker Boehner this Congress. Chairman Gowdy and full committee Chairman Darrell Issa are original co-sponsors. You can view a summary of the legislation here: http://www.speaker.gov/UploadedFiles/SOAR_Act_Summary.pdf.

by Birdie on Feb 25, 2011 2:33 pm • linkreport

Annapolis: I deleted your comment. GGW is a place to discuss ideas, not to attack other people for who they are, how they organized their argument, or otherwise just make criticisms that don't advance a conversation about the issue.

If you have problems with the argument, please explain what you think is wrong.

by David Alpert on Feb 25, 2011 2:43 pm • linkreport

@David
That seems to be rather subjective given posts and articles that are regularly posted here.
I thought it was so obvious I didn't want to write a book about it but basically here's the logic in the argument:
1. We're not that bad so we shouldn't change anything. After all, others are worse. That makes NO sense, none, whatsoever.
2. Local support: completely subjective opinion with no backing for it. Political legitimacy: are we arguing against Congress interfering in DC's affairs because that is a broader issue and is not unique to this topic so it should not be the grounds for arguing it.
3. Lack accountability: Due to non-unionization of workers? What does that have to do with accountability? If the standards are not sufficient at private schools for tax-exempt status or to qualify as accredited education, this argument might hold some weight. Private schools certainly have standards, often higher than public ones. Is the argument about religion mixing with public dollars? That is a much broader issue and is presumed but not argued.
So the author makes three main points. I can't tell if they are premises to a conclusion or arguments in themselves. I would love to see an article describing the differences between charter schools and the voucher program. List the advantages to both and argue your conclusion for why which one is better. That is not what this article does.

by Annapolis on Feb 25, 2011 3:01 pm • linkreport

Well written, persuasive piece.

I also think that DC-OSP is not the best use of federal dollars for education in the District, for many of the reasons stated (the main reason being that I oppose public dollars being utilized by schools over which the community has no control/oversight).

I made a recent post on the role of teachers' unions in education reform and issues related to DCPS and DC Charter schools on my site, http://alanpagedc.com (I invite everyone to take a look at what I wrote and leave responses).

I'm always heartened to see vigorous public discussion about the future of education in the District. Let's keep the ideas coming and the dialogue going until we get the educational system in the District where it needs to be.

In solidarity,

Alan Page
Candidate, At-Large City Council
DC Statehood Green Party

by Alan Page on Feb 25, 2011 3:28 pm • linkreport

The key to improving DC's dismal school performance is more school buses and cheaper real estate? Thanks GGW. You never disappoint.

by beatbox on Feb 25, 2011 3:35 pm • linkreport

JustMe: Why is it so hard to believe parents can't find excellent options within DCPS? Sadly, they're not universal, and not even as widespread as they should be, but there are top notch schools within the District.

I highly doubt that my kids is underachieving compared with her peers. Of course, there's nothing more subjective that a parents assessment of their child.

Frankly, after listening to several of my friends experiences in Northern Virginia, I can't find the attraction. My daughter's class size is much smaller, the parent community far more active, the school much more responsive to parents (with some absolutely stunning exceptions), and the curriculum much more stimulating and engaging. I don't have a long lost twin to use as a control group, but I think she'll turn out pretty ok.

Statistics are fine, but using them to say all kids are underperforming compared to their suburban peers is to misuse them. Every child is different, and schools vary widely in quality within DC. Vigorous school choice has allowed some incredible educational opportunities to blossom. Now to get the rest of the schools up to par.

by TimK on Feb 25, 2011 4:58 pm • linkreport

@TP

Not every kid wins the lottery or gets to live in NW. What do you do for the 60k kids that are stuck in craptastic schools? How do you fix the education at Spingarn and Dunbar in 6 months?

If you're a parent you know those schools aren't getting turned around in the next 4 years, but you have exactly 4 years to get your child prepared for college (or whatever their going to do). What are you options assuming you can't afford to move and you don't win the DCPS school lottery?

The options are charters and parochial schools and that's where your argument falls on its face. You can sell out the next 16 years of graduating seniors trying to reform DCPS but that doesn't help a single child TODAY. Vouchers help a kid TODAY while you guys dick around trying to figure out which way is up with the WTU.

Once you stop making this an evil empire Rep vs. Dem splinter issue you might be able to see the reality of the situation. If the DCPS was meeting the needs of parents and students, this debate would disappear like a fart in the wind as parents wouldn't feel the need to put up with the expense and hassle of shipping their kids across the city to bypass their neighborhood school.

by ahk on Feb 25, 2011 5:09 pm • linkreport

TimK You're a 1 person anecdote. No one is arguing that a wealthy-ish parent can't find a decent elementary or middle school or even 'a' decent HS. What we're saying is that not every kid has that opportunity and that's a problem. There's a severely limited supply of quality HS in the district and the DC Council seems to be studying the problem to death like they have for the past 30 years.

Look at the graduation rates of Spingarn and tell me that you're comfortable sending your child to that school if that's your neighborhood school. It's not fair to the kids that are there right now that this is the best DCPS, the WTU and City Council can do.

by ahk on Feb 25, 2011 5:15 pm • linkreport

ahk:

Your assumption seems to be that creating a hundred charter schools will somehow magically address the issues that cause those 60k kids to be stuck in sub-par situations.

There's a great deal of evidence that any given charter is no better than any given public school at educating a child. The strength of charters is presumably that we experiment by letting a thousand charters bloom, and we shut down the bad ones, replicating the few good ones.

This is a process that would happen over time--certainly not in the four-year time frame you've alluded to.

by oboe on Feb 25, 2011 5:16 pm • linkreport

Sorry, just to address the "vouchers work today": your whole argument rests on being able to serve the 60k kids who are being inadequately served now. Do you honestly believe that giving 60k kids a voucher and telling them go find a placement somewhere is going to cut it? Hell, it would make trying to get into a DC preschool look like a walk in the park.

by oboe on Feb 25, 2011 5:20 pm • linkreport

oboe: I completely agree with your statement. Bad charters don't add much to the equation. However, because charter options exist, you can always yank a kid out if you feel the charter is under performing and try another. You can do that at the semester or year mark. No one can stop you. However, if charters don't exist you're stuck with your 1 DCPS school.

by eb on Feb 25, 2011 5:26 pm • linkreport

oboe: Of course not. But then every parent isn't interested in sending their child to school with a full nutritious meal and a backpack full of corrected homework. That doesn't mean that you punish the parents that do care does it?

And you can always expand charters until DCPS and the WTU get their crap together.

by eb on Feb 25, 2011 5:31 pm • linkreport

@ahk, Sure, and the plural of anecdote is not data. But admist the many factual errors of your original post, I disagreed with your assertion that we're "seeing absolutely no traction with improvement made except in the past 3-4 years". If that was the case, I wouldn't have dumped my kid in school.

I've got nothing against charter schools. I'm actually a fairly strong supporter. Just like DCPS proper, some are excellent and some are crap.

What many people don't realize is that traditional DCPS schools HAVE vigorous school choice. To label it a charter vs. traditional school is to create a false divide. It should be good schools vs. crappy ones.

Every year at this time, there are thousands of parents anxiously awaiting the great lottery game (I'm one of them again with my second). I know of very few that say I'm only applying to charters or I'm only applying to traditional schools. We're all looking for the best fit for our kid. This is a blog post debate, not a real life one.

The war is over. School choice has won. One size fits all, go to the school you're in boundary for lost. Vouchers, good or bad, are a side show. I've got nothing against them, and actually lukewarmly support them, but they're just a way for Congress to play games with the District.

by TimK on Feb 25, 2011 5:42 pm • linkreport

But from what I see, there just aren't that many charters that are valid alternatives. What? Two Rivers, Yu Ying, El Haynes, and maybe a couple of others. It's harder to get into these schools through the lottery than it is some of the decent up and coming DCPS elementary schools.

I'm all for charters, but "expanding charters" needs a bit more elaboration. It's not clear you can do this and maintain quality any more than with DCPS.

by oboe on Feb 25, 2011 5:44 pm • linkreport

"However, if charters don't exist you're stuck with your 1 DCPS school."

@eb, not so. Within DCPS, you can choose any school you wish. Obviously the good ons have more demand than slots, so you have to got through a lottery. Just like charter schools.

The only thing a neighborhood school means is that you are allowed by right to send your kid to that school if you are in bounds. You don't have to.

by TimK on Feb 25, 2011 5:53 pm • linkreport

"the district clause did not anticipate 600,000 taxpaying American citizens residing in such a district and being deprived of the same rights of representation"

600,000 people minus children minus welfare recipients = the actual number of taxpaying citizens residing in DC. Just saying.

Also, as other posters have noted, the lottery certainly does not guarantee acceptance at a school which is acceptable to parents. While Capitol Hill has some amazing public schools, there are very few open spots. For pre-k, some schools had 300 applicants for 30 slots available.

by mch on Feb 25, 2011 6:34 pm • linkreport

JustMe
"Given that, statistically speaking, the DCPS does a poorer job educating its students than other jurisdictions with students of similar socio-economic backgrounds, it's hard to argue in favor of them."
I'm not sure that this is accurate. If you look at NAEP data, DCPS students who are white actually outperform white students in urban schools across the nation. Certainly, for minority students, the picture is different, but I haven't seen evidence to support your statement, re: SES status.
As far as OSP, a study has found students enrolled in the program have performed no better than those who were denied admission to OSP, so it's hard for me to see any evidenced-based rationale for its expense.

by DCster on Feb 25, 2011 7:49 pm • linkreport

@Timk,

I'm not sure how you think this is a good reflection on DC schools:

"Every year at this time, there are thousands of parents anxiously awaiting the great lottery game (I'm one of them again with my second)."

You say you have choice, which you do to an extent, but it's limited to a lottery. That sounds pretty terrible to me. My kid might go to a good school if he or she wins the lottery?

Or you can move to Montgomery County and be guaranteed your kid goes to a good school. No lotter necessary. Of course you shouldn't have to move or rely on a lottery to get a good school, and until that is no longer the case, it's hard to consider DCPS anything but a failure.

by Patrick Thornton on Feb 25, 2011 10:13 pm • linkreport

@oboe: There's a great deal of evidence that any given charter is no better than any given public school at educating a child. The strength of charters is presumably that we experiment by letting a thousand charters bloom, and we shut down the bad ones, replicating the few good ones.

No, that's not the point at all. The strength of charters is that if you give parents a choice, then they are inherently better off than if they have no choice. The person who has the choice between A and B is always better off than the person who only has choice A. Even if you think that B isn't any better than A, on average.

by David desJardins on Feb 25, 2011 10:50 pm • linkreport

David desJardins:

No, that's not actually the theory behind charters. The point is to foster innovation. As far as choices being better than no choices, DCPS parents have a plethora of choices available via the OOB process now. While it's very difficult to get into the best schools, you can basically have your pick of the mediocre schools.

The man with a choice between the electric chair and lethal injection isn't necessarily better off than the man without any choice at all.

by oboe on Feb 26, 2011 12:01 am • linkreport

@oboe: No, that's not actually the theory behind charters. The point is to foster innovation.

As an opponent of allowing charter schools to play any significant role, it's not really surprising that you don't understand what advocates hope to gain from them. But it's the supporters of a movement who define its goals, not its opponents. Letting you define the goal of charter schools is like letting Fox News define Obama's agenda as socialism and destroying America.

I'm sure you couldn't make any sense of Waiting for Superman, either. Your loss.

If one plethora of choices is good, then two plethoras are better. But there are also significant differences between the kind of plethora that traditional public schools offer and the plethora that charter schools offer. You don't measure the range of choice just by counting the number of options. Adding a new flavor of ice cream creates more choice than just adding six new colors of cup to serve it in.

by David desJardins on Feb 26, 2011 12:22 am • linkreport

@ David, I sure can't make any sense of Waiting for Superman. Instruct me. Precisely what are Rhee's supernatural powers?

While you are at it, explain how Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's approach is the right approach on school reform.

I get sick of the whining defeatism of those not pitching in at DCPS and, through their involvement, making their neighborhood schools better. TimK's testimony should be taken to heart: I was able to send my kid to DCPS 4 years ago because of the generations of hard work of previous teachers, administrators, and parents...a base exists to continue improvement. I'd define that as the goal of the DCPS parents' movement. You'll agree to that definition, because, as you know, "the supporters of a movement ... define its goals, not its opponents."

by Trulee Pist on Feb 26, 2011 1:14 am • linkreport

@oboe: I sure can't make any sense of Waiting for Superman. Instruct me. Precisely what are Rhee's supernatural powers?

She seems reasonably capable of logical thought, and not blinded by ideology.

To you, those must seem like supernatural aspects.

You'll agree to that definition, because, as you know, "the supporters of a movement ... define its goals, not its opponents."

Sure. Those goals seem like one of the few things we can agree on.

P.S. Not that it's likely to matter to you, but I don't support the abolition of collective bargaining. Perhaps that's another thing we agree on.

by David desJardins on Feb 26, 2011 1:28 am • linkreport

I'm enjoying reading this debate, but can we please get away from the "you think..." "you don't understand..." - it's personalizing the debate too much. I think everyone can explain what they think without such prolific use of the word "you." Thanks all.

by David Alpert on Feb 26, 2011 8:56 am • linkreport

@Patrick Thornton

A fair point. The advantage is that we, as parents, can choose the best school for our kids. The lottery sounds daunting, and it can be. Certainly not everyone gets their first chocie, but sooner or later parents can find a school that works for their child.

Now, my kid has thrived in her school, but other children we know have not. Thanks to the vigorous school choice, parents been able to send them to schools that are a better fit.

Contrast that with Montgomery County, where you simply have to go to the school you live in bounds for. If it doesn't work out, bummer.

And one thing I'd point out, while there are often dozens of people on waiting lists (if not hundreds) people apply to multiple schools. So many of those names ahead of you have already found places. By August, it's works out for most people, if not absolutly everyone.

by TimK on Feb 26, 2011 9:47 am • linkreport

Oboe is right. Much of the original argument for charter schools was that traditional public schools were bureaucracies and there were many structural barriers to innovation in the way of district wide policies and whatever. Free schools of bureaucracies and rules and innovators would find models of success that everyone could adopt.

While there are excellent charters schools and excellent traditional public schools, it became clear the promise of freeing schools from bureaucracies didn't really deliver that much across the board.

However, people like choice. Over time choice became the driving force behind charter schools, because innovation by being freed from rules didn't really deliver. I can get behind that to some extent. I think different models of education appeal to different kids. There has been research that indicates even when charter schools aren't doing a better job on any empirical measure of educating kids parents are more satisfied. There are lots of intangible things that can't be measured.

What I find unsatisfying about the push for greater choice or more charter schools is that there is limited evidence that either of these things does much to improve the overall level of performance of school children.

Policies that allow lots of choice and chances to get into excellent charter schools or traditional public schools are probably the best thing for someone concerned about the education of a particular child at a particular moment in time. That is the only rational way for parents to operate. That is how good parents operate. I'm not knocking any parent for using any legal or ethical way to get their kid into the best option possible.

However, I think some of the emphasis on choice is distracting from the fact that on average the public education system in DC is failing educate more kids than I find acceptable. Choice will only serve all children well, when all the choices are adequate, which they simply aren't in DC.

Anyone who find a system that consistently delivers results that can be replicated in schools with the kind of challenges some of DCs low performing schools has deserves to be a national hero.

by Kate on Feb 26, 2011 9:53 am • linkreport

There's quite a but of evidence that any difference in school quality comes from new and innovative ways of selectively excluding certain parents/children. This is certainly not unique to charters, though. It's pretty much the organizing principle around which all public education is based. (Live in a poverty-stricken part of PG County? Try sending your kids to BCC H.S.)

The best charters are successful to the extent that their student population is not a representative sample of the population at large. Same with the best DCPS schools (which generally have no OOB slots).

by oboe on Feb 26, 2011 11:55 am • linkreport

I agree with alot of the commenters above, particularly TimK, Trulee Oboe and others. I have had my three children in DCPS for over 11 years now, with my oldest in high school at Wilson, a middle schooler at Stuart Hobson and my youngest in 3rd at Watkins. My kids have had a better school experience than my nieces and nephews in Fairfax Co. and Prince William county, and it's all in spite of the nonsense that DCPS central office dishes out every year. I would put my son at Wilson's education up against any other high schooler in the city, and that includes Sidwell and St. Alban's. Where else can you play a sport, learn chinese, get advanced level math plus be in the play and as an added bonus have classmates from over 100 different countries? It hasn't been easy, and the transitions to the next school are hard especially (for the kids and the parents!) but for my kids it taught them resiliency, independent thought and self-advocacy better than anything else. And yes, the content is there too. Now, DCPS fails a lot of kids, kids who don't have enriched solid homes like mine and we have to fix that. Unfortunately, I only see charters as recreating some of the worst of DCPS, not innovating and or even recreating the best of DCPS. Some charters are great, and doing good things, but most? Meh. Read Washington City Paper's cover story by Johnetta Rose Barras for a great critique of our current situation re charters and DCPS.

by gina a on Feb 26, 2011 11:56 am • linkreport

BTW, I'm neutral on charters. If they can be used as
"incubators" more power to them. If the idea is that we'll just close public schools, and let the Invisible Hand make the difficult decisions for us, not so much.

by oboe on Feb 26, 2011 12:02 pm • linkreport

To everyone talking about how more choice is a good thing, I'd like to point you to this TEDTalk about how more choice is not always a good thing and often a bad thing: http://www.ted.com/talks/barry_schwartz_on_the_paradox_of_choice.html.

Too much choice causes paralyses, not freedom. This is especially true when it's difficult to ascertain what each choice represents and how one might be better than another. Parents just want a good education for their children, not to spend hours researching which schools are "good" and which schools won't work. And then, in DC at least, even if you find some schools that you might like, you have to contend with a lottery and ranking of your schools.

This is why Apple doesn't allow you to make bad choices with your iPhone by giving you extraneous choice. You certainly have more choice with Android, but many of those choices are ultimately bad for you and cause a bad user experience. Apple is all about user experience, which is why they limit the amount of bad choices you can make.

For instance, there really are no limits on what kinds of applications people can make and put in the Android marketplace. This includes knockoffs, viruses and other malware. Apple carefully vets every application before it goes in the store, which leads to less choice. But the average user shouldn't have to sort through crap to find what he is looking for, and shouldn't have to worry about viruses and other malware.

The thing is that Apple and its engineers are the experts, so they should be logically making the choices for you. How many DC parents are experts on education? How many of them read data on each school, do research and know how to interpret that data and research?

Choice can be good for power user. A programmer may like an Android better because he has the knowledge and ability to modify the phone to his liking and understand what each choice means. Similarly, someone who is an expert in education might prefer more choice, because she has the knowledge to sift through everything.

Giving DC parents countless choices for their students isn't going to help them. Giving them good schools will. Some choice is certainly good, but what is even better is making sure they can't make bad choices.

Why should taxpayers being paying for objectively bad schools?

They shouldn't.

by Patrick Thornton on Feb 26, 2011 1:07 pm • linkreport

"There is no question that some choice is better than none, but it doesn't follow from that that more choice is better than some choice."

That's a quote from the video I linked to above. His video is largely about how increased choice makes people less happy because it raises expectations. And indeed, if DC residents feel like they have a ton of choice for their kids schooling, they are going to expect better outcomes. When those outcomes don't come, people are less happy.

Suburban parents are often happy with having limited choice for schooling. Their options are a public school, private school or parochial school. There is usually one public school to choose from. Typically parens ask, "Is this school good enough?" In the DC region, that school is often very good, and the parents have no further decisions to consider.

If not, they then can ask themselves if they prefer to send their kids to private or parochial school. After they make that decision, they have a limited number of options to choose from.

That's a stark contrast from being able to consider every public school and charter school in DC and then having to consider all of the private and parochial options.

DC parents would be in much better shape if they had less choice but better choices. Imagine if parents had to choose between one good public school or one good charter school? And if they were religious or wanted a different environment, they could consider a private route.

DC has 101 elementary schools alone. And then there are about 60 charter schools. Then you have private and parochial options. For many DC residents, the private route requires considering financial aid and scholarships.

by Patrick Thornton on Feb 26, 2011 1:28 pm • linkreport

Patrick: That research on choice shows that the person making the choice is often happier not having as many choices. But that doesn't mean this is better for the kids.

Having the choice creates stress, for sure. When it comes to schools, though, I wonder if the kid is still better off going to a better school even if the parent found the process more frustrating.

With a consumer device, it's often just fine if someone ends up with a worse device if they're happier about it. In education, though, the future of the kid is at stake in a way that's not with iPhones.

by David Alpert on Feb 26, 2011 1:44 pm • linkreport

@David,

The issue is whether or not the increased choice yields better results. Ultimately I'm not arguing for less choice, but rather that seeing choice as better may not be wise. The core issue, as I see it, is that not every student in the DCPS can receive a good education and attend a school worth attending. All the choice in the world won't fix that.

I don't have kids, but if I did, they would be attending the only public school option I have in Silver Spring. I certainly have less choice than a DC parent, but all my choices are good ones (I could also send a kid to private or parochial school). When every choice is a good choice, more choice doesn't seem so bad.

But back to too much choice being a bad thing: How are parents supposed to ascertain which schools are the "good ones?" You are assuming that the increased choice will allow a student to go to a better school. That only is correct if a parent chooses (and wins a lottery) into a better school.

How am I supposed to know which are the good schools in a school district that is overall considered one of the worst in the country? Charter Schools are notoriously hit or miss. And all schools have a selection bias. You have to control for the quality of students coming in.

Let's not forget that many DC parents aren't not well educated and don't have great English language skills (many are ESL. While you, me and others on this thread might be able to aptly sift through the data on the different schools and be able to use this choice to our advantage, many parents will not be able to.

So, I stand by my statement that DC parents would be much better off with less choice but with better choices.

by Patrick Thornton on Feb 26, 2011 2:09 pm • linkreport

Patrick: I agree with you that it's not an axiom that more choice is always better. However, I'm just saying that in the context of education, it's also not as clear that less choice is better the way it is for buying jam in a grocery store.

I'll also agree that fewer but better choices for DC would be preferable to more, poor choices. The question is how to get to that state instead of just to fewer, also poor choices.

by David Alpert on Feb 26, 2011 2:25 pm • linkreport

@Patrick Thornton: Too much choice causes paralyses, not freedom. This is especially true when it's difficult to ascertain what each choice represents and how one might be better than another. Parents just want a good education for their children, not to spend hours researching which schools are "good" and which schools won't work.

Come on. Raising children is not the same as choosing a flavor of jam in the mall. Sure, there might be limited value in having so many different flavors of jam available that the cognitive effort to decide between them is greater than the potential benefit. But the benefit of having a good education is a million times greater than the benefit of finding a slightly preferred flavor of jam. If the argument is really that we should give parents fewer choices because it might be too stressful for the parents to spend the entire sum of "hours" making the crucial decisions that will influence their kids for the rest of their lives, then we have fundamentally different ideas about the role and responsibility of parents.

But back to too much choice being a bad thing: How are parents supposed to ascertain which schools are the "good ones?"

The same way they decide anything else. Visit the schools, read about them, hear their presentations, talk to other parents.

Stores sell all kinds of different clothes---how do parents ascertain which clothes are good choices for their children to wear? Stores sell all kinds of different foods---how do parents ascertain which foods are good choices for their children to eat? Dealers send all kinds of different vehicles---how do people ascertain which cars are good choices for their family to drive? Cities have all kinds of different neighborhoods---how do people ascertain which homes are good choices for their family to live in? Life is full of choices, and I don't see anyone advocating for getting rid of most of these choices that exist in our society, except in certain areas like public education where entrenched incumbents don't want competition.

For anyone who actually did watch Waiting for Superman, this is the point of the film. It's not about whether charter schools are better, or worse, on average, than traditional public schools. It's about the difference between having choices and not having choices.

by David desJardins on Feb 26, 2011 4:16 pm • linkreport

@Patrick Thornton: His video is largely about how increased choice makes people less happy because it raises expectations. And indeed, if DC residents feel like they have a ton of choice for their kids schooling, they are going to expect better outcomes. When those outcomes don't come, people are less happy.

That sounds great. I agree with this observation about people, and it's an important part of the charter school argument. If a consequence of giving people more choices is that they have higher expectations and make more of a fuss when those expectations aren't met, then that's another direct benefit of increasing choice in the public school system. Anything that raises parent expectations is a good thing.

by David desJardins on Feb 26, 2011 4:20 pm • linkreport

@Kate: Oboe is right. Much of the original argument for charter schools was that traditional public schools were bureaucracies and there were many structural barriers to innovation in the way of district wide policies and whatever. Free schools of bureaucracies and rules and innovators would find models of success that everyone could adopt. While there are excellent charters schools and excellent traditional public schools, it became clear the promise of freeing schools from bureaucracies didn't really deliver that much across the board.

How would we know what the promise of freeing schools from bureaucracies can deliver? It's only rarely been tried. The city of San Carlos (CA) converted all of its district schools, even those directly operated by the district, to charter schools. This is about as close as you can come, in the US, to Ray Budde's original concept. And they are quite happy with the increased autonomy and flexibility.

But there is no way that you can replicate what schools with more autonomy do, in the context of the existing bureaucracy. And that was never part of the charter school argument, it's exactly the opposite. They, including Ray Budde, Albert Shanker, etc., argued that there are forms of success that can only be achieved outside the existing structure. And I think there is plenty of good evidence to support that conclusion.

by David desJardins on Feb 26, 2011 4:26 pm • linkreport

But there is no way that you can replicate what schools with more autonomy do, in the context of the existing bureaucracy....[T]here are forms of success that can only be achieved outside the existing structure. And I think there is plenty of good evidence to support that conclusion.

Let's see the evidence.

Between my own positive experience with DCPS, that of gina a and TimK, I see three examples of families who have found choices within DCPS that delivered all the success anyone could ask for. I know, one of us is an anecdote,two is merely the plural of anecdote, but when the record shows three, four, many successes, it is difficult to sustain such a categorical statement that there is "no way" that's possible within the DCPS bureaucracy. It's not only possible, it's happening every day.

In all the above discussion about choice, here's a choice not highlighted that, in my experience, made all the difference in the world. Commit to DCPS. Send your kids to the DCPS school that fits their needs. Spend time at the school. Pitch in. Make it better. Your kids will succeed, and just as important, you will have laid a groundwork for many more families to succeed in DCPS for years to come.

Waiting for Superman is a mug's game. Superman ain't coming. We are the Superman we've been waiting for.

Tiger Mom could wring a great education out of DCPS. I understand everyone is not Tiger Mom, and many will never find the right fit in traditional DCPS, and some of them will be gratified with a charter instead. Fine, but let's not make that universal.

Many more will be served when we focus on improving neighborhood schools, rather than simply abandoning the public school system in favor of the charter chimera. The chaos of the all-charter San Carlos model does not sound like a good route for DC to take in improving public education.

by Trulee Pist on Feb 26, 2011 5:21 pm • linkreport

The San Carlos School District serves approximately 3,200 students in Kindergarten through 8th grade

In Silicon Valley, between San Franscisco and San Jose, in a town of 28,000 discerning people who liked the small town atmosphere and chose to move there.

Audited enrollment data released ...by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) show DCPS with 44,467 students, a decline of 214 from last year's 44,681.

Hey, I was looking for an apple here. Who gave me this orange?

by Trulee Pist on Feb 26, 2011 5:40 pm • linkreport

@Trulee Pist: Hey, I was looking for an apple here. Who gave me this orange?

I didn't propose the San Carlos model for DCPS. I don't think it would work in DC. The function of the example is to illustrate the premise of reducing bureaucracy and its possible benefits, not to propose a model to be copied.

But I am a bit bemused by the observation that San Carlos CA is unlike Washington DC because its residents are "discerning people who chose to move there". Is the implication supposed to be that, by comparison, the people who live in DC tend to be tasteless and make poor decisions? If I were a less charitable person I would almost say this seems racist.

by David desJardins on Feb 26, 2011 5:54 pm • linkreport

@Trulee Pist: In all the above discussion about choice, here's a choice not highlighted that, in my experience, made all the difference in the world. Commit to DCPS. Send your kids to the DCPS school that fits their needs. Spend time at the school. Pitch in. Make it better. Your kids will succeed, and just as important, you will have laid a groundwork for many more families to succeed in DCPS for years to come.

But why isn't all of this exactly as true if you choose a charter school and pitch in and make it better?

I think it's more true, because, in my observation, you have a better chance of finding a charter school that will allow you to get involved and make it better. And the benefits to other families are the same.

by David desJardins on Feb 26, 2011 5:57 pm • linkreport

@ Dr. desJardins
You prove David Alpert's point, when he recommended commenters refrain from ascribing motives to others. Racist? No, I was gentling mocking the earnest families of San Carlos. You misunderstood me.

Here's the kind of sentiment I feel damages the opportunity for bringing the most benefit to the most kids in DC:

@TP
Not every kid wins the lottery or gets to live in NW. What do you do for the 60k kids that are stuck in craptastic schools? The options are charters and parochial schools...Vouchers help a kid TODAY while you guys dick around trying to figure out which way is up with the WTU....If the DCPS was meeting the needs of parents and students, this debate would disappear like a fart in the wind as parents wouldn't feel the need to put up with the expense and hassle of shipping their kids across the city to bypass their neighborhood school.

You didn't post that comment, so we can strive to achieve the Alpert Model of Dispassionate Debate. How do you parse the sentiment quoted above?

I did not win the DCPS lottery. I do not live in NW. When my eldest started at the neighborhood school 19 years ago, I felt it was just barely a cut above "craptastic." Why'd I stick with it? Because I saw parents of older kids were working hard to improve the upper grade classes, I liked them, I shared their vision, and so I joined their PTA and pitched in to keep the improvements coming.

I thought those older parents were well-meaning and limited in their effectiveness, but I knew when I pitched in, we'd really turn this mess around. Now, with the humility of old age, I look at the current parents and am amazed at the projects they are undertaking at that school, far beyond the small efforts we made in my day. The kids of the older parents succeeded, and sent their kids to Ivy League schools. My kids are successful. The current school delivers more than it did when my kids were there. The future is bright with more possibilities at this neighborhood school that was barely better than "craptastic" two decades ago.

I don't carry a brief for WTU, but I also dispute the sentiment expressed above that we are dicking around, or that the current active parents at the neighborhood school are dicking around.

I thought long and hard about "shipping the kid across the city" but chose to stick with this neighborhood school instead.

I think it is shortsighted to say "the options are charters and parochial schools" period. Charters can be one option. Another option is to stop the defeatist, categorical bad mouthing of DCPS schools, and encourage families to pitch in and make them better. That's all.

by Trulee Pist on Feb 26, 2011 6:55 pm • linkreport

@Trulee Pist: I don't carry a brief for WTU, but I also dispute the sentiment expressed above that we are dicking around, or that the current active parents at the neighborhood school are dicking around.

I searched the original posting and the comments and I can't find any words about "dicking around". I don't agree with anyone who thinks volunteering in and improving their neighborhood schools is "dicking around". As far as I can tell, no one here ever said any such thing.

I think it is shortsighted to say "the options are charters and parochial schools" period.

I think that would be worse than shortsighted, it would be crazy. I'm glad that no one said any such thing.

by David desJardins on Feb 26, 2011 8:04 pm • linkreport

"Vouchers help a kid TODAY while you guys dick around trying to figure out which way is up with the WTU."

See the quote in italics in my post.

"What do you do for the 60k kids that are stuck in craptastic schools? The options are charters and parochial schools."

Ditto

But I take your point. It would be crazy to take the position that nothing good can come from efforts to improve DCPS because it is too far gone. But too often, that's the sentiment expressed by those deploring the state of DCPS.

by Trulee Pist on Feb 26, 2011 9:32 pm • linkreport

@David desJardins:

But I am a bit bemused by the observation that San Carlos CA is unlike Washington DC because its residents are "discerning people who chose to move there". Is the implication supposed to be that, by comparison, the people who live in DC tend to be tasteless and make poor decisions? If I were a less charitable person I would almost say this seems racist.

Boo...hiss...

Leaving aside the gratuitous race-baiting, I think Mr Pist's point that taking a homogenous, self-selecting population of upper-middle class knowledge workers, and trying to apply their lessons to a heterogenous, though generally lower-income, non-mobile, inner-city population of historically oppressed folks probably ain't the best comparison.

And, yes, I think that folks who have a hair-trigger yelling "racism" at any argument where demographic plays a part works against a productive dialogue.

by oboe on Feb 28, 2011 4:03 pm • linkreport

The DC Opportunity Scholarship Program, as reviewed by the US Department of Education did not meet its original purpose and objectives. Residents of the District of Columbia have voted in a referendum against vouchers.

Robert Vinson Brannum
rbrannum@robertbrannum.com

by Robert Vinson Brannum on Mar 2, 2011 3:31 pm • linkreport

I live near San Diego; know nothing of DC schools other than what I read here. Let me summarize what I have read:
1. 60k students attend failing schools.
2. DC has some of the best schools in the country.
3. There are lotteries at the best schools.
4. Assuming your kid gets through a lottery, he can go to any charter or public and now voucher school desired.
6. The 60k students stuck in failing schools are there because (a) they lost the lottery or (b) they didn't enter the lottery because they or their parents chose a failing school.
7. The failing schools have not felt the need to adapt or been able to adapt to become good schools.
8. The good schools have not expanded to meet demand.
9. DC schools cost twice to 3 times per student what other schools, including California, do.
10. Voucher schools are cheaper than regular public schools.
Have I got it?
So I guess the 60k student question is, "Why haven't the good schools expanded to meet demand?"

by Kent on Apr 25, 2011 11:56 pm • linkreport

It's not easy to start or expand a school. And generally the voucher only covers part of the per-student cost.

by David desJardins on Apr 26, 2011 9:06 pm • linkreport

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