We cannot let disparities in public education opportunity continue in the nation’s capital

The Washington Post’s Perry Stein wrote in her newspaper yesterday that efforts to bring students back to in-person learning in the District are demonstrating an uneven response depending upon where families live:

“The partial reopening is a relief to families of all incomes, but the mismatch across the city has teachers and parents questioning whether the city should be pouring resources during the pandemic into an in-person learning program that White students are disproportionately enrolling in. . . In D.C., families in the poorest ward rejected offers for an elementary school spot a twice the rate of families in the wealthiest one.”

However, because pupils in the city are predominately Black or Hispanic, Mr. Stein points out that “most students returning are students of color.”

Here are some other interesting demographic statistics from the piece:

“Of the elementary students expected to return to classrooms, 60 percent are homeless, learning English as a second language, receiving special education services or designated as at-risk, which means they are in foster care or their families qualify for public assistance. At the middle and high school level, 70 percent of students fall into one of these categories.

White children, who make up 16 percent of the D.C. school system’s population, are a minority of the total number of students expected to return to classrooms — 28 percent of the 6,300 children at the prekindergarten and elementary level, according to city data — but a larger percentage of them chose in-person learning.

As a result, some campuses in the wealthiest neighborhoods have most of their students — hundreds of children — returning. And on the other side of the Anacostia River, some schools have just a couple dozen students listed.”

So far, the Post reporter states that 9,200 pupils have committed to returning to the traditional schools out of a total allotment of 15,000 spaces. There are approximately 50,927 students currently enrolled in DCPS, which is operated by the Mayor but is publicly funded.

The decision as to whether to send a child back to school is complicated depending on safety concerns, childcare arrangements, and other parental responsibilities such as a job. In addition, the traditional school system is not offering after-care.

Also, returning to in-person school is not a all-or-nothing proposition. The high school student I tutor through the Latino Student Fund can return to Woodrow Wilson High School beginning Monday, but that is only for two days a week. He must balance going back with helping the family take care of other siblings.

To make maters more confusing, as if all of this was not confusing enough, according to Ms. Stein, “every school has a different reopening plan.”

When this mess is over we really have to solve the inequities of education opportunity across this town. I’ve argued for decades that the most powerful solution for reaching this goal to to turn all schools into charters. If the regular schools can have different reopening plans then they can have different curriculum, different hours, different schedules, different personnel rules and responsibilities.

Since this is now 2021, and one of my New Year’s resolutions has been to increase my flexibility, I’ll allow that under the new plan some of the previously designated neighborhood schools will be able to remain open for enrollment to anyone who wants to attend them in the community. But as far as the hierarchical structure of these institutions, I draw a red bright line. They are all to be independently managed and reporting to a board of directors.

The pandemic has cost minorities tremendously regarding illness and death. This was all predictable based upon the tremendous achievement gap between affluent and poor in Washington D.C., which is an echo of the gap in the social determinants of health.

Our community has suffered enough. Time for a change. Do something. Don’t just sit there.

Let’s together change the model of schooling after this series of traumatic events. We can follow the precedent established by New Orleans after the Hurricane Katrina. There public schools reopened as charters. We have the example. Now let’s implement.

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