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It’s Time To Disband DC’s Public School System Once And For All


Washington DC public schools are facing yet another round of scandals. By now, it’s probably time to stop calling that unceasing reality “news.” Schools chancellor Antwan Wilson resigned Tuesday after it was revealed he pulled strings to get his daughter into a better public school rather than resigning her fate to the district’s lottery assignment system. That’s only the tip of the iceberg.

This year, the FBI began investigating the school system after it was revealed that the district fraudulently awarded high school diplomas to a third of last year’s graduates. Last year, the Washington Post found the previous school chancellor also helped connected parents get their kids into better public schools without having to use the lottery system, and that DC schools were lying about their suspension rates.

There’s more: “Last year, only 178 out of 2,307 graduates from all DCPS high schools had satisfactory attendance. Almost half of DCPS students who missed more than half of the school year graduated last year,” notes Max Eden (emphasis added). This is disgusting. How can someone truly earn a diploma without actually being present in school to do the work?

Corruption is endemic to DC public schools and has been for decades. The famed Michelle Rhee came in as chancellor in 2007 after the district’s school board was stripped of powers due to gross mismanagement over the previous four decades, including financial corruption, nepotism, and union heads going to jail for embezzlement. At that point, the school system had had six chiefs in the previous ten years. Soon after Rhee left in 2010, test cheating scandals rocked the district.

Mary Levy, a local activist who’s been tracking DC schools since 1980, told Washingtonian in 2007, “‘I have never figured out why it is so hard to do in DCPS what is absolutely routine elsewhere’…Like ordering books, paying teachers, fixing bathrooms.” Not only can’t the district keep toilet paper in bathrooms, what it’s done with students for all these decades can hardly be called education. DC’s student achievement has been among the lowest in the nation as long as anyone had been keeping track. There are good reasons parents with any connections whatsoever use them to get their kids out of this place.

All this, and the district has consistently been one of the nation’s top-spending. Lately the per-pupil spending is approximately $29,000 every year, enough to secure every student a private tutor. On top of that level of taxpayer spending over the past several decades, “Philanthropists have poured more than $120 million into the school system since 2007,” the Post reports. Money is obviously not the problem. The system is.

Four decades of mental carnage inflicted on especially vulnerable children need to end now. It’s time to disband Washington DC public schools before the system can destroy yet another generation while adults launch more “reforms” we’ll again soon find squandered developmental years children will never get back, plus billions more in taxpayers’ money that continues to entrench the cronies who subvert the reforms. This system has proven beyond shadow of doubt it can’t change. So it’s time for a new one.

It’s Been Done Before, and It Worked

This may sound radical, but it has recent and replicated precedent with a much better success recordthan DC’s school district. When Hurricane Katrina washed away New Orleans, the city and state decided to make lemonade by doing away with that city’s own longtime corruption-plagued, academically failing school district. They converted all the traditional public schools into charter schools, public schools with a different form of governance.

Charters are governed by boards comprised of local parents, teachers, and leaders, and accountable to a variety of separate entities such as universities, local nonprofits, and management organizations. This diffusion of power among varied competing entities helps prevent the power strangulation that facilitates corruption, and keeps any corruption that does happen localized to smaller spheres of power. The state legislature concurrently opened a school voucher program to allow kids to take their state K-12 dollars to private as well as public schools. These changes reoriented the city’s schooling model away from a centralized bureaucracy and towards individual families.

Here’s a summary of the results written by homegrown schools leader Neerav Kingsland for an education journal’s comparison between DC and New Orleans school reforms:

Before Hurricane Katrina decimated the city and most of its schools in 2005, 64 percent of public school students in New Orleans attended a school designated as ‘failing.’ Currently, only 9 percent of students attend failing schools. High school graduation rates have increased by more than 20 percentage points, from below 50 percent to more than 70 percent. And, in 2013, a study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) found that New Orleans charter schools deliver five months of extra learning per year when compared to similarly situated traditional schools.

New Orleans’s most at-risk students are also benefitting from the new system: CREDO found students with special needs achieve nearly two months of extra learning per year. And, despite New Orleans schools serving an extremely at-risk population, the expulsion rate is below the state average. Performance increases have not been achieved by ignoring equity; rather, New Orleans has become one of the most equitable urban school districts in the country.

Already half of DC children attend charter schools and have access to a successful but far too limited vouchers program. It would take several years to phase in an all-charter district and expand the voucher program appropriately, but New Orleans’ experience would allow this to be done more efficiently and avoid more pitfalls in the execution.

The Final Nail in Test-Driven ‘Accountability’ Coffin

DC was epitome of test-based, incentive-driven reforms of the type touted by everyone from Obama Education Secretary Arne Duncan to a host of GOP governors and “reform” foundations since the 1950s. While those policies seem to have brought some limited improvements, they have hit a wall not only in failing to address corruption like DC’s — similar graduation inflation and test-gaming have cropped up across the nation — but also in academics. The same has been happening across the country as slight gains in achievement for fourth graders have stalled despite dramatic increases in testing-driven “accountability.” (Achievement for older students has basically been flat for the past 40 years, after significant dips in the decades prior that are not explained by demographics.)

Teachers across the nation report being pressured to fudge grades, pass students who don’t deserve it, and accept students into classes they can’t keep up in, all because of school evaluation models that use these metrics to keep up appearances for taxpayers. This is the junky alternative to a true market-based accountability system, in which the people closest to the kids are empowered to judge their progress and make swift changes accordingly.

You can’t lie easily or persistently to mom, dad, and teacher about whether Johnny was in school Tuesday. You can easily lie perpetually to the school district, state and federal departments of education, state and federal lawmakers, and so forth about that same thing by marking Student 459184 “absent with excuse” on a spreadsheet. Choice equals responsibility. Choice equals accountability. Choice is true local control.

The bureaucratic approach has maxed out. It’s past time to move to the best competing model, which has so far been exemplified by New Orleans but also has fostered dramatic improvements in Arizona. That’s a robust blend of private and public school choice, across the board, for all students, with limited regulations. The New Orleans experience revealed major overregulation flaws that the next wave of reform in its mold should avoid, but it improves drastically upon the currently conventional U.S. schooling model that in its worst rendition gives us school districts like Washington DC.

After all, why should only the well-connected parents have the power to get their kids into good schools? That’s the true scandal.