Technically, the District of Columbia offers school choice. However, as a Washington Post article pointed out this weekend, there is a difference between school choice and real school choice, the latter available to too few students in the nation’s capital.
D.C. children who attend an underperforming school are allowed to transfer to other public schools—including charter schools—of their choice. Yet while D.C. may be seen as “a showcase for school choice”—as its “14-year-old charter school law is considered to be one of the strongest in the nation”—most D.C. public schools have abysmally low proficiency levels. And though charter schools are available, it is difficult for parents to find a spot for their child in the handful of those with top rankings.
Thus, as the Washington Post notes, only 29 percent of students who are eligible to leave a poorly performing school end up in a “higher proficiency” school. Despite there being over 90 charter schools and 100 D.C. public schools from which these families can theoretically choose, when it comes down to it, the choice for the majority of schoolchildren in D.C. is between bad and really bad.
However, school choice doesn’t have to be simply a slogan, and failure doesn’t have to be the only option for students in the nation’s capital. In fact, there is a successful program currently operating in D.C. that offers real choice to students, the kind of choice that gets children into better schools and offers them real hope at academic success. This program is the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (DCOSP), which offers scholarships to low-income students to attend a private school of their choice. As a result, families who would never dream of being able to send their children to some of the best schools in the District have that opportunity.
Program evaluations indicate that DCOSP students are outperforming their public school peers. Over 90 percent of DCOSP students graduate, compared to only 70 percent of their peers with similar characteristics. On top of this, parents of these students report being more satisfied with their children’s school and say that it is safe and orderly.
While it would seem logical to continue and expand such a successful program—especially considering the lack of educational opportunity offered to D.C. schoolchildren—congressional opponents have instead been attempting to phase out the DCOSP, mostly due to pressure from special interests groups. Thus, educational opportunity is being denied to thousands of children who remain in unsafe and underperforming public schools.
In a school district with some of the worst scores in the nation, merely giving lip service to educational choice not only is unfortunate but is a tragedy for children whose futures depend on a decent education. Programs like the DCOSP open up the doors for such success. Instead of maintaining the failing status quo and bolstering empty policies, it is time to give parents in the nation’s capital—and across the nation—the tool to help their children succeed. True parental choice in education is that tool.