WASHINGTON – American consumers take for granted that we have widespread choice, from scores of cereals that line our grocery store shelves to the colorful array of cell phones. Parents who live in Washington, D.C., however, should appreciate the increasingly vibrant educational marketplace that they enjoy today.
Ten years ago, D.C. parents didn’t have much choice when it came to schools for their children. There were no charter schools and no federal voucher program helping families afford private schools. Children simply had to attend a government-run public school, which too often offered little in the way of an education.
In 1996, D.C.’s first charter school opened its doors. Charter schools are publicly funded schools that are freed from some of the regulations that govern traditional public schools.
No child is assigned to a charter schools; parents must choose to enroll their child in a charter school. Charter schools must work to attract students, and do so by developing unique missions and curriculums.
Today, the District is home to more than 50 charter schools, which offer different areas of emphasis. The D.C Public Charter School Board’s Web site showcases the variety of schools available. Each school describes its mission in order to attract parents. Some specialize in performing arts, character development, foreign languages, college preparation, math and science or legal studies.
Some of these schools are flourishing: boosting test scores and graduating students bound for college. But not all of the District’s charter schools have been as successful. Some have shut their doors for failing to meet performance goals or for administrative problems.
That’s a good thing. Failing schools ought to shut their doors. The real problem is when bad schools are shielded from competition, and stay open in spite of failing to educate the students in their charge.
For too long, traditional public schools had been shielded from competition. That’s not the case today. More than 17,500 D.C. children– or about one-quarter of the total public school enrollment– will attend a charter school this fall. Each of these students could have been enrolled in a traditional public school, but opted not to. Another 1,700 low-income students are using federally funded school vouchers to attend private school.
D.C. public schools are taking notice. The typically intransigent D.C. public school teachers are accepting reforms, including merit pay, in an effort to make their schools more attractive to parents.
This is the benefit of competition. Parents choose schools best suited for their children. Schools work harder to offer serves that will appeal to parents. The diverse array of charter schools that have developed in just a decade testifies to how woefully inadequate our traditional approach to K-12 education has been.
It’s common sense that a neighborhood with 10 restaurants and markets will offer higher quality, more variety, and lower prices than a neighborhood with just one grocery store where residents can buy food. Education works the same way.
The good news for D.C. parents is that they now enjoy some choice when it comes to their children’s education. The bad news is that choice is still limited. Demand has outstripped supply in the D.C. voucher program with nearly two students applying for each available scholarship. Many charter schools also having waiting lines: Lotteries determine which lucky students can enroll in the desired school and which must stay in the public school.
This doesn’t have to be the case. D.C. spends more than $10,000 per pupil. If that money was returned to the students in the form of a voucher, all families would be able to select a school suited to their child’s needs. Ten years of school choice has taught us an important lesson: competition in education works. It’s time to apply that lesson and expand school choice for all D.C. students.