D.C. schools changing for a better future

October 4, 2007

I along with 22,000 elementary school students in D.C., attend a Catholic school even though, like 74 percent of those students, I’m not Catholic.

I chose Georgetown for some of the same reasons that many D.C. parents choose to send their children to one of the 75 parochial schools run by the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington—the local school wasn’t a good fit. Georgetown has an excellent academic reputation. It’s in a great, safe neighborhood. And someone else is picking up the bill.

In my case, the “someone” is my parents, but in the case of parochial school parents, the “someone” is the federal government, which funds the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program,.Authorized in 2004., the Program provides vouchers to low income parents that can be used at any of the Catholic elementary schools in D.C. The idea is that low-income parents who can’t afford private or parochial schools on their own should still be able to choose where to send their children.

There may now be fewer Catholic elementary schools from which to choose from if the Archdiocese goes through with its plan to change eight schools that have until now participated in the D.C. voucher program into charter schools. The proposal has sent up a predictable storm of protest among parents, which is unfortunate, since such protest obscures the brightest prospect for education in D.C. in many years.

The D.C. public school system is notoriously awful. In 2004, D.C. spent more than $11,000 per student, and still the National Assessment of Educational Progress found that 94 percent of students in the District weren’t proficient in math and 90 percent weren’t proficient in reading. Researchers like Patrick Wolf at the University of Arkansas and Mark Gray at the Georgetown Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate say that it was partially that negative spiral, in which the D.C. system was locked for years that helped solidify the tradition of Catholic education in D.C., and pushed students toward Catholic and private schools. Catholic schools, like those operated by the Archdiocese, originally served the children of immigrant families who didn’t want to attend their local public schools, and as those families moved out of D.C. to the suburbs, they’ve begun serving inner-city, mostly-minority and non-Catholic students instead.

Or they did. The Archdiocese cited falling enrollment and funding gaps as reasons for closing the eight schools. Falling enrollment at Catholic schools, an explosive expansion of the charter school system, increasing pressure on the public schools to improve—maybe it’s the idealist in me, but it certainly seems as though a change for the better is on the horizon.

Proponents of voucher programs often argue that vouchers are a means of allowing low-income families access to high-quality education. But I can make a guess—betraying the excitement that Wolf and Gray, as researchers, can’t—that it looks as though parents are opting back into the public school system and away from Catholic schools.

“It may be that public education in D.C. is getting better and people just haven’t realized it yet,” said Gray about the plethora of new public school options in D.C. Wolf, likewise, called charter schools the “900-pound gorilla” in public education, saying that when researchers ask public school administrators whether they feel competitive pressure from private schools and voucher programs, the answer has been no—the pressure to improve, innovate and attract students has been coming from charter schools.

It’s too early to tell for sure—changing schools is always traumatic for the students and their families. But since this particular proposal is still tentative; since the diocese will try to place the students in different Catholic schools, if that’s where they want to go; let’s look past the initial changes and admire what looks like a brighter future for the charter school system and D.C. public education.

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