Public School Choice in the District of Columbia: A Descriptive Analysis

Josh Pierson

 

Forget federal politics for a minute. There is one
area where Washington deserves kudos for its leadership: school choice. As this
Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER) brief
explains, D.C. has one of the most extensive choice programs in the nation.
During the 2008-09 year, only 35 percent of District students attended their
traditional neighborhood school. The others could be found attending
“out-of-boundary” publics (31 percent) or charter schools (34 percent). Furthermore,
choice programs seem to be reaching those who need them most—poor and minority youngsters
are significantly more likely to exercise choice than their affluent and white
peers. Data also show a willingness to add several miles to the daily commute
in order to attend the school of their choice. Of course, D.C.’s choice
initiative isn’t flawless. This study finds evidence of “cream-skimming”—whereby
relatively high-scoring students (still poor and minority, mind you) are likelier
to take advantage of choice. In D.C., students who opted into out-of-boundary public
schools entered their new school one-sixth of a standard deviation ahead of
their “staying” peers in reading and one-fifth of a standard deviation ahead in
math. (Students opting into charters significantly outperformed their “staying”
peers, as well.) A difficult issue indeed, but surely not a decisive argument
against school-choice programs, since the alternative—keeping everybody
padlocked to failing schools—is hardly preferable.

Umut Özek, “Public
School Choice in the District of Columbia: A Descriptive Analysis
,”
(Washington, D.C.: National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in
Education Research, April 2011).

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