Public Education in Washington DC

May 9, 2003 • Testimony
By Casey J. Lartigue Jr.

Good morning, Mr. Chairman and members of the committee. My name is Casey Lartigue. I’m an education policy analyst at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C. It is unfortunate that we must have this hearing on increasing educational choice for D.C. parents. The discussion should not be over whether there should be another educational choice, but rather, on how to bring as many educational choices as possible to parents. Most of us are familiar with recent stories about textbooks being delivered late to D.C. public school students; about non‐ employees being on the school payroll; about numerous errors in study guides; about low test scores; even about the expectations of public school leadership to receive praise for starting the school year on time. But I ask: is this failure new?

Next year will mark the 200th anniversary of the founding of public education in the nation’s capital. I would suggest that we not hold a party. A comprehensive report released in 1805 read: “In these schools poor children shall be taught reading, writing, grammar, arithmetic, and such branches of the mathematics as may qualify them for the professions they are intended to follow.”

Has the District been successful in fulfilling its mission to educate local residents? With 37 percent of district residents reading at the 3rd grade level or below, with SAT scores more than 200 points below the national average, with D.C. public school students performing well below the national average on just about every known academic achievement measure, I would say the answer is no.

During previous congressional hearings, a U.S. Senator concluded: “A crisis has been reached in the school system of Washington. The education of more than 60,000 children is involved.” Although that would accurately describe the situation in the nation’s capital today, those words were spoken by Sen. Pat Harrison (D- Miss.) in a select committee report. In 1920.

Seventy‐​six years later, the Financial Control Board concluded that the leadership of D.C.‘s public school system was “dysfunctional” and famously pointed out that “for each additional year that students stay in DCPS, the less likely they are to succeed, not because they are unable to succeed, but because the system does not prepare them to succeed.”

We’ve had warnings along the way that the system has been a well‐ funded failure.

In 1947, the superintendent of schools declared that D.C. had “one of the sorriest school systems in the country. “The 980‐​page Strayer report, published in 1949, found that D.C. students were achieving below the national average in all academic areas. An analysis of standardized test scores in the 1950s reveals that when one‐​third of the students in the District were white, public school students in the District were trailing the national average on all subjects tested. In 1967, a comprehensive 15‐​month study of public schools in D.C. found a “low level of scholastic achievement as measured by performance on standardized tests.” A few months earlier in an editorial, with the headline “The Silent Disaster,” the Washington Post said, “The collapse of public education in Washington is now evident.” That was in 1967.

The main point of this is to point out that the failure of DCPS is not new. We wouldn’t be rocking a smoothly sailing boat by trying something different.

The opponents of choice have expressed numerous concerns. I’d like 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 as good news. That means that the argument over choice has been fought‐​and won. We are no longer debating whether choice is good. I would like to remind the committee that charters were not popular when the District of Columbia School Reform Act of 1995 passed. They were “untried.” The first charter school law passed only four years earlier, in Minnesota. Only 12 states had them by the time D.C. decided to try them, over the objections of many local constituents and leaders.

Charters were opposed by the D.C. Board of Education and also opposed by the local teachers union. One council member said: “We don’t need nobody to come in and run our schools.” The president of the board of education said that charters “are taking away from the basic premise of education to allow public funds to go to private schools.” We now see that charter schools have been a positive addition to the D.C. education system. These points are now made today about vouchers.

2) “Not enough available space. ”

The same was said of charters in 1995. Eight years later, we know that the critics were wrong. Now there are more than 40 charter schools, educating more than 14,000 students. A decade from now, there could be more diversity with charter schools, public schools, private schools accepting vouchers, homeschools, and virtual 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 lot has changed since then, even in D.C. with the introduction of charters. The students in the schools today were not even alive then. I believe that parents would embrace vouchers as much as they embrace charter schools today, if given a chance. The historical record suggests that the public school system cannot reform itself. It is time to put power in the hands of parents by greatly increasing the range of educational choices.

About the Author
Casey J. Lartigue Jr.
Education Policy Analyst