D.C. Auditor misinterprets study on school enrollment and education reporters follow

Last week the Office of the District of Columbia Auditor, together with the Johns Hopkins School of Education Center for Research and Reform in Education, released what it referred to as a comprehensive study on annual enrollment projections for DCPS and charter schools in the nation’s capital. While it found that these estimates are oftentimes inaccurate, this turns out not to be the major conclusion of the voluminous report.

The Washington Post’s Perry Stein quotes Kathy Patterson, the D.C. Auditor as stating, “the findings illustrate the unintended consequences of having a city with many school options for families.”

Not to be outdone, WAMU’s Debbie Truong includes this line from Erin Roth, research director in the auditor’s office, “Everything you do is going to impact other schools. Nothing is in isolation.” 

So now let me tell you what is actually going on here. The District has an exceptionally active school choice environment in which it has been estimated that 75 percent of children attend a school other than the one in their backyard. The investigation found that parents who chose a school other than their neighborhood school tend to pick a facility that has a lower proportion of at-risk children than the one their offspring would be assigned to attend. This has the impact of lowering the number of students attending the neighborhood school, thereby decreasing the amount of revenue this school receives since in D.C. money follows the child. The authors worry that the loss of dollars will harm the very students that need the most financial support.

Ms. Patterson refers to this as an unintended consequence. She has this exactly backwards. The cause and effect are operating exactly as planned. The only problem here is that the government is failing to react according to the voice of the consumers. Instead of keeping the neighborhood school operating as it has in the past, it needs to heed the demands of families and either close the school, merge it with one that is instructing at a higher level, or turn its management over to a charter school.

Please allow me to illustrate my point. The following paragraph comes directly from Ms. Stein’s article:

“For example, only 9.8 percent of students who live in the boundaries of Anacostia High — a neighborhood school in Southeast Washington — have elected to attend the school. It has an at-risk population of 81 percent, and 35 percent of students require special education, according to city data. By comparison, Thurgood Marshall Academy — a charter high school near Anacostia High — has an at-risk population of 54 percent. Twenty percent of its students have special education needs.”

Now every parent knows that you do not want your child to attend Anacostia High. The school has been a train wreck for decades. The logical conclusion would be to get your child into Thurgood Marshall if you can, a Performance Management Framework Tier 1 school that is successfully closing the academic achievement gap. Ms. Stein failed to mention that while Anacostia has empty hallways, Thurgood Marshall has been consistently at full enrollment. The movement of students is as intended as possible.

The researcher from the Auditor’s office seems to imply that Thurgood Marshall has somehow negatively impacted Anacostia High. Nothing could be further from the truth. What the charter school has done is provide a life preserver to kids who would probably end up in jail or worse. Instead, graduates of Thurgood Marshall go on to college.

The study is a vehicle to impact public policy in a way favored by the authors. Here we have a review of enrollment projections being turned into an polemic for more taxpayer earnings being given to failed educational institutions.

The paper has many other findings, such as charter schools tend to lose students during the school year while DCPS sees the opposite trend. We have known about this mobility issue for 20 years. What I was most shocked to find contained in this work is that in 2020 there is still no correction to a DCPS’s school budget, as is the case with charters, when the May estimate for the following school term turns out not to be true the following October.

You have got to be kidding.

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