Photo of children in rear-view mirror from Shutterstock.
It’s been an eventful year for education in DC. Here’s a look back at some of the major developments.
1. Much talk but little substance in the race to be DC’s Education Mayor
Education emerged as a pivotal issue in the 2014 mayoral contest.
Muriel Bowser began her campaign with a slogan of Alice Deal for All, promising to replicate the success of Ward 3’s lone middle school across the District. Her rival, David Catania, touted his extensive record as chair of the DC Council’s education committee and scoffed at Bowser’s “empty platitudes.”
After critics pointed out that the success of Deal Middle School had a lot to do with its unusually affluent student body, Bowser shifted her education strategy to a more general one of staying the course, promising to retain DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson.
While Bowser’s victory was an endorsement of the status quo, none of the three major candidates, including third-place candidate Carol Schwartz, promised a significant shift from previous policies.
None, for example, seriously questioned the system of mayoral control of DC’s schools that has been in place since 2007, and none called for any significant changes in DC’s robust charter sector. Still, the prominence of education as a campaign issue helped keep the subject on DC’s front burner.
2. Overhauling DC’s school boundaries and feeder patterns
The DCPS boundaries currently in effect date from the 1960’s, and they’ve become a lopsided mish-mash because of demographic changes and school closures. Some schools are overcrowded while others are underenrolled, and many students have the right to attend more than one school. An advisory committee charged with rationalizing the system began meeting in the fall of 2013, and its labors ultimately bore fruit, and produced controversy, in 2014.
The committee’s original proposals, released in April, would have largely replaced the system of neighborhood schools with student assignments through some form of lottery. That idea proved wildly unpopular, and in June the committee released a revised proposal that preserved residents’ rights to attend schools in their neighborhoods. Outgoing Mayor Vincent Gray adopted that proposal in August.
Even that didn’t satisfy everyone because it excised some residents from school zones they preferred. But a poll in September showed that over half of DC residents supported the plan.
Still, neither Catania nor Bowser endorsed the overhaul. Bowser, whose DC Council district includes one of the neighborhoods most disgruntled by the plan, originally said she intended to start the whole boundary review process over. Later, she began to tone down her rhetoric, eventually saying she wanted only some “tweaks.”
Bowser hasn’t said much on the issue since her election. Nor did she introduce legislation to halt DC’s common school lottery, which opened December 15 and is premised on applying the new boundaries to students who are new to DCPS in the fall of 2015. Families can use the common lottery to apply to charter schools and DCPS schools that are selective or are not their assigned neighborhood school. It seems unlikely Bowser will end up making any significant changes to the boundary plan.
3. Tensions between DCPS and charter schools
There were signs of greater coordination between DCPS and charters, including the launch of a common lottery that allowed parents to apply to schools in both sectors simultaneously. But for the most part, relations between DCPS and the District’s burgeoning charter sector, which now enrolls 45% of DC students, grew more tense.
The debate about the school boundary overhaul unearthed some of that tension. The boundary committee originally saw its mission as limited to DCPS, but parents at community meetings called for more coordination with the charter sector. They argued it made no sense to draw up plans for DCPS schools that could easily be upended by unchecked charter growth.
That point was underscored in July, when a new charter school announced it would open directly across the street from a DCPS school with a similar focus. DCPS Chancellor Henderson, who said she found out about this development from Twitter, offered some sharp words about “cannibalization” and a lack of communication and joint planning.
Generally, proponents of neighborhood schools—which, in DC, means DCPS schools—say that charters are draining students and resources from DCPS. Charter advocates respond that competition from charters should spur DCPS to improve. Moreover, they say, it’s hard to plan where schools will locate when space is in such short supply—partly because DC has failed to release some mothballed DCPS buildings.
These tensions have now erupted in court: a coalition of charter schools has sued DC, alleging the District is violating federal law by funding DCPS more generously than charters.
During the mayoral campaign, some called for the candidates to impose limits on charter growth. Bowser has indicated her willingness to do that if necessary, but she clearly would prefer to find a way to get charters to engage in joint planning voluntarily.
That task will almost certainly fall to her deputy mayor for education, Jennie Niles, who—as a former leader of a prominent charter school—should be well positioned to accomplish it.
4. Charter school growth and quality
Despite talk of limiting growth, the Public Charter School Board has continued to expand the number of slots at charter schools. At the same time, it’s trying to ensure that as many of those slots as possible are high-quality.
Four new charter schools opened this fall, and the PCSB has approved charters for three new schools that will open in 2015. But it also turned down five applications that it deemed unworthy. And it voted to close one charter that engaged in financial fraud and self-dealing, while almost shutting down another.
As for charters that are struggling academically, the PCSB is increasingly trying to find ways to turn them around rather than close them. This year successful charter networks took over two charter schools that had been at risk of closure, and a third such charter will merge with DCPS next year. The PCSB recently gave a last-minute reprieve to another charter slated for closure, provided it can meet certain conditions.
The PCSB’s efforts to improve school quality appear to be paying off. This year, over 12,000 students are enrolled in charters meeting the agency’s highest standards, an increase of 9% over last year. And only five schools are in the PCSB’s lowest category, down from eight last year.
5. The continuing debate over whether schools are improving
Standardized test scores continued to inch up. Even so, only about half of DC students are proficient in reading and math. More troubling, the achievement gap between affluent white students and others remains stubbornly wide.
Test scores have generally been on a slow upward trajectory for the past seven years, but critics have charged the reason for the increase is an influx of affluent students rather than any actual improvements in education. In July, a group of education advocates called for DC to release more information about testing data, claiming it would show that achievement gaps are actually growing.
However, a recent study examining the raw test scores seemed to indicate the opposite, concluding that there has been progress for all ethnic and socioeconomic groups.
No doubt that conclusion will be challenged by others. And with the advent of a new, more difficult test this year, scores will almost certainly plummet.
Will 2015 be an equally eventful a year for DC education? Stay tuned as it unfolds.
Update: A spokesperson for the PCSB has pointed out that charter growth in 2014 was the slowest in DC’s history, as the PCSB opted to prioritize quality over growth.