D.C. Mayor right on school choice; U.S. Education Secretary is not

Last night, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser gave her third annual State of the District address and there was plenty in there for advocates of school choice to cheer.  In a strong direct refutation of a letter sent to Congress by 13 D.C. Council members, including David Grosso, the chairman of its education committee, that called for a phasing out of the Opportunity Scholarship Program that allows children living in poverty to attend private schools, the Mayor had this to say early in her remarks:

“We call on the President and Congress to uphold our 3-sector school funding approach that enhances PUBLIC EDUCATION funding in DC.” [Capitalization is in the original text.]

Of course, the 3-sector funds include equal dollars annually for the OSP, charters, and traditional schools.

Later on in her speech she returned to the subject of the District’s schools and commented on the charter sector:

“This year, I am also proud to further increase the public charter school facility allotment by 2.2 percent this year, and lock that increase in for the next four years. Adding millions more to the school facilities all across the District. As well as make available more public buildings for public charter school use.”

The raise in the per peril facility allotment does not reach the $3,250 floor that charter leaders had wanted, but at $3,193 it comes close.  Now Ms. Bowser just needs to add an automatic increase for inflation.  We are also going to hold her accountable for her promise to make additional surplus DCPS buildings available to those institutions that now educate 46 percent of all public school pupils in the nation’s capital.

While the D.C. Mayor hit the nail on the head regarding school choice, last Wednesday U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos missed it.  She was speaking at the Brookings Institution on the release of its 2016 Education Choice and Competition Index compiled by Senior Fellow Russ Whitehurst.  Denver, Colorado is the city at the top of the study’s rankings for having the greatest amount of school choice.  However, as the Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss reports, Ms. DeVos did not agree.  From the Education Secretary’s prepared statement as provided by the Post:

“I am hopeful this report helps light a fire under [low-scoring cities] to better serve students. And while we may be tempted to emulate cities with a higher grade, I would urge a careful look.

The two-highest scoring districts, Denver and New Orleans, both receive A’s, but they arrive there in very different ways.

New Orleans provides a large number of choices to parents: All of its public schools are charters, and there is a good supply of affordable private schools. The state also provides vouchers to low-income students to attend private schools if they choose. Combined with its easy-to-use common application, New Orleans’ sophisticated matching system maximizes parental preference and school assignment.

Meanwhile, Denver scored well because of the single application process for both charter and traditional public schools, as well as a website that allows parents to make side-by-side comparisons of schools. But the simple process masks the limited choices.”

As I’ve written about many times before, I had the great opportunity to spend some time in Denver last summer as part of the Amplify School Choice conference sponsored by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.  There I learned first hand about the strong growth of charters in this city, and the way that the traditional public schools are held to the same accountability standards that charters face.  Here is what I wrote last August:

“Since 2005, according to Mr. Dan Schaller, director of advocacy for the Colorado League of Charter Schools, ‘DPS has closed or replaced 48 schools and opened more than 70, the majority of them charters.’  Low performing charters have also been shuttered.  For example, during the 2010 to 2011 school year 25 percent of schools up for renewal were closed.  Today there are 55 charter schools in Denver out of a total of 223, teaching 18.3 percent of all public school students.

The results of these initiatives have been nothing short of amazing.  The Denver Public School system is now the fastest growing urban district in America.  The high school graduation rate has jumped to 65 percent in four years.  From 2004 to 2014, the proportion of students at or above grade level in reading, math, and writing has climbed from 33 percent to 48 percent.”

Also, as I’ve mentioned on numerous occasions, there is a District-Charter Collaboration Compact in this city that has many features that should be emulated here in D.C. and other places across the country.  I strongly recommend that Secretary DeVos make a visit to Denver and see the miracles taking place there such as the outstanding education being provided to low income children by schools such as DSST PCS.

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