All D.C. students deserve high-performing schools

Jan. 31, 2020

Anthony A. Williams, a Democrat, was D.C. mayor from 1999 to 2007 and is chief executive of the Federal City Council.

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Public school choice is working for District students and families.

Our once-struggling public schools now are beacons of innovation and improvement for the nation. A new report by the D.C. Policy Center shows how far we have come.

As the State of D.C. Schools report notes, since the passage of the Public Education Reform Amendment Act of 2007, public school enrollment has increased and the District has become the fastest-improving state and urban district in the nation. Families are empowered by and overwhelmingly confident in our system of public school choice: 71 percent of students attend a school of choice, either D.C. Public Schools or public charter, and a stunning 92 percent of parents rate their child’s school as “excellent” or “good.”

Despite this good news, we remain a long way from ensuring that all students receive a high-quality public education. As the report notes, achievement gaps continue to abound and just 11 percent of schools in Ward 8 are high-performing compared with 100 percent in Ward 3.

So where do we go from here?

We should continue to expand the supply of and access to high-quality schools and ensure all schools have the autonomy and resources needed to effectively serve all students.

New, high-quality schools and the innovations they yield have been cornerstones of the District’s progress. As a result, many schools are closing achievement gaps that once seemed intractable. Still, tens of thousands of students live in neighborhoods without easy access to gap-closing schools. Thousands are left on waiting lists for high-quality schools every year.

More high-quality education options are needed and needed now. DCPS’s new Bard High School Early College, the opening of five new public charter schools with diverse programming and the planned expansion of existing high-quality charter schools such as Washington Latin are important steps in this direction.

But expanding supply alone is not enough. We must also expand access to high-quality schools, especially for our most disadvantaged students. DCPS is piloting an enrollment preference for “at-risk” students at the new Stevens School early childhood program. Implemented more broadly, such a preference could provide greater opportunity across the District.

Schools also must have the resources needed to effectively support all students. The Office of the Chief Financial Officer recently announced the collection of $280 million in unanticipated revenue in fiscal 2019 and is projecting nearly $518 million in additional revenue over the next four years. The District’s hard-earned economic successes are providing the resources for further investments in our schools.

Despite our substantial resources, however, the District’s own analysis shows that per-student funding has not kept pace with inflation. Keeping up with rising costs should be a given, not an aspiration, when it comes to the city’s investment in education. Some have called for a 4 percent increase in the base per-pupil funding. That would be a reasonable start.

Another worthy investment would be to increase the District’s “at-risk” funding weight, which provides additional resources to disadvantaged students. The District’s deputy mayor for education is actively developing new recommendations for this important funding stream — recommendations that will be watched closely. Adequately funding these students should be a priority.

But we should do more: Nearly half of our public school students attend a school whose future facilities funding is uncertain. There is no set funding level for public charter schools facilities beyond next year’s budget. The District should provide school leaders with stability and certainty by extending the soon-to-expire 2.2 percent annual increase in the charter school facilities allotment.

We also should encourage more efficient use of existing public school buildings, including incentivizing co-locations of DCPS and public charter schools. One way to do that is by dedicating a portion of rent paid by a public charter school to the school-level budget of the “host” DCPS school. Doing so would provide resources for these schools without increasing the District’s overall budget while providing high-quality learning environments to more public school students. That is a true win-win.

The District’s future hinges on the success or failure of our public schools. If we hope to build a more equitable, inclusive tomorrow for our city, we must ensure that every student has access to a high-quality public school that is equipped with the resources and autonomy necessary to meet his or her needs today.

JOIN THE MOVEMENT #iBELIEVE 

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