Public Education in Washington DC


Good morning, Mr. Chairman and members of the committee. My nameis Casey Lartigue. I'm an education policy analyst at the CatoInstitute in Washington, D.C. It is unfortunate that we must havethis hearing on increasing educational choice for D.C. parents. Thediscussion should not be over whether there should be anothereducational choice, but rather, on how to bring as many educationalchoices as possible to parents. Most of us are familiar with recentstories about textbooks being delivered late to D.C. public schoolstudents; about non- employees being on the school payroll; aboutnumerous errors in study guides; about low test scores; even aboutthe expectations of public school leadership to receive praise forstarting the school year on time. But I ask: is this failurenew?

Next year will mark the 200th anniversary of the founding ofpublic education in the nation's capital. I would suggest that wenot hold a party. A comprehensive report released in 1805 read: "Inthese schools poor children shall be taught reading, writing,grammar, arithmetic, and such branches of the mathematics as mayqualify them for the professions they are intended to follow."

Has the District been successful in fulfilling its mission toeducate local residents? With 37 percent of district residentsreading at the 3rd grade level or below, with SAT scores more than200 points below the national average, with D.C. public schoolstudents performing well below the national average on just aboutevery known academic achievement measure, I would say the answer isno.

During previous congressional hearings, a U.S. Senatorconcluded: "A crisis has been reached in the school system ofWashington. The education of more than 60,000 children isinvolved." Although that would accurately describe the situation inthe nation's capital today, those words were spoken by Sen. PatHarrison (D- Miss.) in a select committee report. In 1920.

Seventy-six years later, the Financial Control Board concludedthat the leadership of D.C.'s public school system was"dysfunctional" and famously pointed out that "for each additionalyear that students stay in DCPS, the less likely they are tosucceed, not because they are unable to succeed, but because thesystem does not prepare them to succeed."

We've had warnings along the way that the system has been awell- funded failure.

In 1947, the superintendent of schools declared that D.C. had"one of the sorriest school systems in the country. "The 980-pageStrayer report, published in 1949, found that D.C. students wereachieving below the national average in all academic areas. Ananalysis of standardized test scores in the 1950s reveals that whenone-third of the students in the District were white, public schoolstudents in the District were trailing the national average on allsubjects tested. In 1967, a comprehensive 15-month study of publicschools in D.C. found a "low level of scholastic achievement asmeasured by performance on standardized tests." A few monthsearlier in an editorial, with the headline "The Silent Disaster,"the Washington Post said, "The collapse of public education inWashington is now evident." That was in 1967.

The main point of this is to point out that the failure of DCPSis not new. We wouldn't be rocking a smoothly sailing boat bytrying something different.

The opponents of choice have expressed numerous concerns. I'dlike to briefly address three of them:

1) "D. C. already has choice. "

This is said to be an objection to vouchers, but I welcome it asgood news. That means that the argument over choice has beenfought-and won. We are no longer debating whether choice is good. Iwould like to remind the committee that charters were not popularwhen the District of Columbia School Reform Act of 1995 passed.They were "untried." The first charter school law passed only fouryears earlier, in Minnesota. Only 12 states had them by the timeD.C. decided to try them, over the objections of many localconstituents and leaders.

Charters were opposed by the D.C. Board of Education and alsoopposed by the local teachers union. One council member said: "Wedon't need nobody to come in and run our schools." The president ofthe board of education said that charters "are taking away from thebasic premise of education to allow public funds to go to privateschools." We now see that charter schools have been a positiveaddition to the D.C. education system. These points are now madetoday about vouchers.

2) "Not enough available space. "

The same was said of charters in 1995. Eight years later, weknow that the critics were wrong. Now there are more than 40charter schools, educating more than 14,000 students. A decade fromnow, there could be more diversity with charter schools, publicschools, private schools accepting vouchers, homeschools, andvirtual schools all competing for students.

3) "D.C. residents have already voted against vouchers "/"D.C.residents are opposed to vouchers"

D.C. residents voted against tuition tax credits in 1981. A lothas changed since then, even in D.C. with the introduction ofcharters. The students in the schools today were not even alivethen. I believe that parents would embrace vouchers as much as theyembrace charter schools today, if given a chance. The historicalrecord suggests that the public school system cannot reform itself.It is time to put power in the hands of parents by greatlyincreasing the range of educational choices.

Casey J. Lartigue Jr.

Government Reform Committee
United States House of Representatives