Commentary

Let the Money Follow the Student

By Marie Gryphon
December 28, 2006
Mayor-elect Adrian M. Fenty has pledged to make education reform his administration’s top priority. Unhappy with the progress of embattled DC Public Schools superintendent Clifford B. Janey, Fenty plans a New York-style mayoral takeover of the system. He may be popular enough to succeed, but unless he supports policies that fund students instead of failing schools, his coup cannot trigger an education revolution in the District.

Even without new ideas, a takeover may do some good: it would sideline a fractious and sluggish local school board and give the new mayor a chance to rid the DCPS of its most egregiously corrupt personnel and practices. But no managerial shake-up will rid the system of the honest but substandard teachers and techniques that keep District schools in the national-rankings basement year after year.

Only by empowering parents to choose their children’s schools can Mayor-elect Fenty achieve his goal of a quality education for every child. He should increase public school choices, lift the arbitrary cap on the number of charter schools allowed in DC, and expand the district’s nascent but promising school voucher program.

Poor teaching quality, one of the District’s worst problems, is exacerbated by public school administrators who prefer to hire education majors instead math and science majors, even though the latter make better teachers in their subjects. Giving parents the ability to choose which public schools get their money discourages these and other counterproductive practices, as Harvard economist Caroline Hoxby has found.

Hoxby’s work suggests that public schools that compete for funds and students are more likely to hire the most capable teachers available, improving results for students at all schools. But the DCPS still assigns students to schools largely by neighborhood. Fenty should recommend a city-wide open enrollment program for public schools to allow the most successful schools to expand their capacity and serve larger numbers of students.

Second, Fenty should unleash a new wave of Charter school entrepreneurship in the District. Charter schools have blossomed in recent years and now serve over 17,000 students in the District of Columbia. Although about three quarters of DC’s charter school students come from low-income families, and virtually all are racial minorities, they routinely outperform DCPS students on math and reading tests, according to a recent study by the Progressive Policy Institute.

Despite good academic results and high rates of parental satisfaction, Washington’s charter school movement is hobbled by an arbitrary cap of 20 new charters per year. Fenty should support lifting this cap. Equally important, he should smooth the way for charter schools to lease sought-after DCPS building space that is currently going to waste.

Finally, Fenty should rethink his former opposition to DC’s promising new Opportunity Scholarship Program. The program offers scholarships of up to $7,500 to low and moderate income families who wish to enroll a child in a private or parochial school in the District. Both scholarships and places in participating schools are awarded on a lottery basis.

The program is too new to evaluate for educational results yet, but studies of similar programs elsewhere indicate that—while school choice benefits all students—African-American voucher recipients reap the largest academic gains. In a city with a painfully large academic achievement gap between white and minority students, the Opportunity Scholarship Program could be an important force for equity.

But only if it is expanded. While the program is probably priceless to many of the 1,802 students it serves, it is too small to provide meaningful competition for DC’s public schools. A much larger program would not only benefit more scholarship recipients, it would also benefit the remaining DCPS students by forcing the public system to pull its socks up and improve the educational services it offers to local families.

Mayor-elect Fenty has promised to provide “qualified teachers for all children.” If he is serious about that, he should put parents, not bureaucrats beholden to the American Federation of Teachers, in charge of choosing schools for them. To do so, he needs merely to embrace and expand existing programs that allow funding to follow students to the educational opportunities they deserve.

Marie Gryphon is an adjunct scholar.