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D.C. Public Schools On Verge of Enrollment Cliff

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, it was the costliest tropical storm to ever hit the United States. Although most of that cost was calculated in property losses, we here at American School Choice can’t help but recognize the human cost as well, and we’re not even talking about the appalling loss of human life.

We’re talking about the storm’s effect on the city’s public education system. The devastation created by Katrina displaced students at an enormous rate. The Recovery School District, which had actually been created in 2003 to take over persistently failing schools, was primed for such an event. In November 2005, 3 months after the hurricane, Act 35 was passed by the Louisiana legislature, raising RSD’s minimum School Performance Score (SPS) required for RSD to take over a school. The system was in such bad shape that 100 schools in Orleans Parish were subsequently being taken over by RSD. As RSD began outsourcing its duties to charter operators like KIPP and Algiers, a lot of chatter arose as to whether New Orleans would become a fully chartered school district. Alas, it did not, but the chatter has continued even in other places like Ohio, which is experiencing similar low performance (albeit, without weather related difficulties) and might turn to higher performing charters for an answer.

Although Superstorm Sandy did not batter the shores of Washington, D.C. the same way Katrina did in New Orleans, it appears that complacency and “a disease of inattention and neglect” is driving the District’s public school system to “an irreversible tipping point.” Indeed, the buzz surrounding complete New Orleans chartership has spread to our nation’s capital, and some influential people are admitting that charter schools might present a favorable option to DC’s persistently failing schools.

Let’s be completely frank here: DC schools are terrible. The schools have the worst graduation rate in the United States, the gap between the best and worst schools is growing, and although DC Public Schools showed growth on recent standardized tests, only charter schools (which actually showed slight decline) showed “Proficiency.”

So, let’s get back to the matter at hand – a charter district. There are a select few city candidates for district chartership, and those are mainly the cities with charter market share above 40% (meaning at least 40% of the district’s students attend charter schools). For these data, we refer to one of our favorite annual reports from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. New Orleans is first, with a charter school market share of 76%. We spoke to this above, so there is no need to reiterate the profundity of that number. Next in line are two cities that are tied at 41%: Detroit Public Schools and DC Public Schools.

The interesting connection between New Orleans and Detroit is that both cities have experienced massive out-migration in the past decade, one due to a natural disaster, the other due to a financial one. Although it sounds like fewer students would make life easier for public school administrators, a lot of local tax revenue is lost during urban flight, revenue that had previously gone to Per Pupil funding. Now, let’s not get wrapped up right now in whether Per Pupil funding/spending affects performance the way some people think it does, but let us simply acknowledge that losing tax dollars can lead to school closures, pink slips, and general educational malaise.

The District, however, does not have the excuse of out-migration. Children are fleeing, sure, but they’re fleeing the public school system has failed to meet their expectations and failed to keep promises for far too long. Oh, and for all those that do link school funding with performance, DCPS spends almost $30,000 per student, and exorbitantly high number. The District has already proposed consolidating its waning enrollment into fewer schools, a cost cutting measure that won’t come close to solving the performance problem, and may not even save that much money due to the cost of the closures themselves.

In the end, the District of Columbia might as well convert to a District of Charters. Why? Because even the Chancellor of DCPS admits why families are making the choice to leave the system:

“You’re absolutely right in that many charter schools, because of their proficiency rates, offer, at least on the surface, a better opportunity,” Henderson said. “We’re going to have to work really hard.”

The root purpose of school choice is to create competition and spark some innovation in a national education system that has been in a death spiral since the end of the Cold War. The “us vs. them” mentality that helped drive achievement in schools disappeared, and with it came complacency. DC Public Schools is a crushing example of what can happen when you throw money into a bottomless hole, hoping that the hole produces something of value. There is no innovation in DCPS. In fact, the system doesn’t even appear to be trying to compete with charter schools.

Our open declaration to District of Columbia Public Schools: If DCPS won’t teach our children, do the honorable thing and let charters do it for you. Privatize your school system now and save yourself the embarrassment of becoming a hapless inevitability.

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