The Need for Educational Freedom in the Nation’s Capital

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The public school system in the nation's capitalis failing. Teacher incompetence, bureaucraticcorruption, crumbling infrastructure, violence,lax academic standards, and wastefulspending are among the litany of problemsplaguing the District of Columbia PublicSchools. By almost any educational achievementmeasure, the children attending public schoolswithin the shadow of the U.S. Capitol are notreceiving a quality education.

While critics of DCPS tend to focus on thefailures of particular superintendents or administratorsbedeviled by scandal or incompetence,the failure of the government-run school systemin the District of Columbia is not new. This failurepreceded white flight from the District in themid-1950s and has continued despite inflation-adjustedincreases in spending, reduced classsize, and attempts to reform the system fromwithin. In short, the good old days of public educationin the nation's capital never were.

Contrary to the claims of defenders of thepublic school system, DCPS does not lackmoney. Despite having per-pupil spending thatranks among the highest in the nation--10,550for 1999-2000--public school students in theDistrict rank near the bottom on standardizedtests and in achievement levels. Although spendinghas almost tripled since the 1980-81 schoolyear and increased 39 percent since MayorAnthony Williams took office in 1998, the systemlacks qualified teachers, safe facilities, andeven basic supplies such as pencils and text-books.The system's leaders demand moremoney in exchange for more promises ofimprovement.

To improve education in the nation's capital,we must consider options beyond spendingmore money in a system that even supportersacknowledge is troubled. Change must not belimited to propping up the current system.Public schools that are little more than holdingpens must not be sheltered from private competition.The city must find a way to create competitionwithin the system, with the goals of givingparents power over the education of their children,fostering an environment that will create aclimate for education entrepreneurs to flourish,and taking education out of the hands of feudingpoliticians.

Casey J. Lartigue Jr.

Casey Lartigue is a policy analyst with the Cato Institute's Center for Educational Freedom.