States Getting Schooled by D.C. in School Choice

Keeping it Classy, Nation’s Capital Aces Test on School Choice

March 3, 2015—Not everything is broken in Washington — at least when it comes to its kids.

To raise awareness for National School Choice Week, the Franklin Center spotlighted Washington DC-area schools during their #AmplifyChoice event. Touring schools, interviewing students and learning about the logistics of funding, AmplifyChoice was a crash course in school choice options and realities for families within the DC area.

In contrast to many areas of the country, parents in the nation’s capital truly have options for the education of their children. Boasting traditional public schools and a diverse selection of public charter schools, private schools and, most importantly, the Opportunity Scholarship, families in the District have the power to make practical educational decisions for the success of their children.

While traditional public schools in the DC area are operated and regulated through the government, the District of Columbia Public Charter School Board (PCSB) authorizes and oversees the public charter schools that are run by independent nonprofits. Both of these options are publicly funded, but charter schools have the freedom to employ the teaching methods that the individual nonprofits choose. Focusing on quality education, PCSB bases a tiered-rating system of charter schools on student progress, achievement and parent satisfaction.

In addition to the DC school system’s publicly funded options, the Opportunity Scholarship is available for DC residents who are five years old by Sept. 30h and meet income guidelines. These scholarships are up to $12,572 for students to attend high school and up to $8,381 for elementary and middle school enrollment.

The DC Opportunity Scholarship Program website explains that the scholarship is the product of a city-wide effort to improve the area’s entire education system, including traditional public schools, public charter schools, even private schools, in order to “expand quality educational experiences to for District families.”

The Opportunity Scholarship is federally funded and accepts private donations.

Students who receive the Opportunity Scholarship may use it to attend any of the 50 private schools that accept the scholarship. Not only does this scholarship help students and families by breaking down economic barriers, it helps broaden school choice and educational options by supporting private schools.

Approximately 36 percent of monetary support for Archbishop Carroll High School comes from Opportunity Scholarships. While touring the campus, students shared stories of past educational experiences, why they chose Archbishop Carroll and their history with the Opportunity Scholarship. Some of these students traveled over an hour on public transportation to attend school, others told stories of receiving a scholarship while their siblings did not and the stress it caused on their families.

One student confessed to feeling “naïve” when she realized she took the Opportunity Scholarship for granted and assumed that nobody would take something so great away from a student.

If the school of hard knocks teaches us anything, it’s that most students outside DC aren’t so lucky.

I flew in to DC from Solano County, Calif., about an hour northeast of San Francisco. According to the 2013 US Census, the population of Solano County is estimated to be 424,788 with 23.3 percent of the population to be under the age of 18. This is in contrast to DC, with a 2013 population estimate of 649,111, 17.2 percent of whom are under the age of 18. The DC area serves about twice as many students as Solano, but offers about 60 public charter schools with a Tier 1 or Tier 2 rating and 50 private schools that accept Opportunity Scholarships, in addition to traditional public schools.

Yet, according to the California Department of Education, Solano County offers only eight public charter schools — any honors math student at a charter school can see, this doesn’t add up.

Instead of a system of self-regulation like the DC PCSB that holds autonomous charter schools accountable, California leaves the regulation of charter schools up to the state. According to the Private School Review, Solano County has 37 private schools and no federal scholarships that are easily accessible to the public — let alone advertised and encouraged by the school system.

The reality for School Choice in Solano County, Calif., is to either homeschool, pay out of pocket for private school, fight for a spot in one of the eight public charter schools (which may not be anywhere near your neighborhood and there is no public rail) or send your children to traditional public school.

The lesson learned here? When it comes to overseeing its students, California is getting schooled by DC.

PCSB DC Opportunity Scholarship Program Private School Review