The Magazine

What If All Schools Were Schools of Choice?

At the rate things are changing, in ten years you may not recognize American public education

Jun 19, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 38 • By CHESTER E. FINN JR.
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All D.C. schools are schools of choice, and any youngster may attend any public school in the city. All are funded on the basis of enrollments although extra money (including federal dollars) accompanies students enrolled in higher grades, disabled youngsters, and others with special needs. In addition to the basic school payment, low-income parents may, upon request to DCEC, obtain "supplemental education certificates" worth as much as $ 2,000 per pupil, which they can apply to a variety of educational expenses, including after-school activities, tutoring, and summer programs.

District schools do their own marketing but DCEC provides ample public information, including the huge amount of data now inscribed on "school report cards." Several community organizations, including the Washington Post, strive to supplement DCEC's efforts. Parents, in fact, are awash in information -- which comes to them in print, over the airwaves, and via the Internet -- about individual schools. Dozens of citizens serve as "school selection" mentors and advisers.

Four times a year, a big "school fair" enables families to meet face to face with school representatives to learn more about them. A month or so after each fair, DCEC conducts a lottery for new students (and anyone wishing to change schools). On their "preference card," parents note their three top choices and indicate any special circumstances, such as siblings already enrolled and geographic proximity.

Nearly 90 percent of District families get their first or second choice, and almost everyone gets one of their top three schools. One duty of DCEC is to find suitable slots for those who do not. So far, everyone has been successfully placed. And children who must attend a school that isn't one of their choices enjoy priority in the next lottery, should they wish to change.

The supply of new schools is growing. Oversubscribed schools often open additional campuses or turn faltering schools into branches. Most of the private firms that operate contract schools watch the lotteries like hawks for evidence of what sorts of schools the public wants, so that these can be quickly furnished.

The menu of school options in 2010 is impressive. It includes alternative programs for dropouts, "back to basics" schools, experiential learning centers, and International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement schools. There are schools run by for-profit national chains, some run by civil rights and minority groups (including the Urban League and the National Council of Negro Women), a few operated by educational and cultural organizations (including the National Geographic Society and the Kennedy Center), and still others launched by the Girl Scouts and the YMCA. There are "virtual" schools, schools located on the work sites of major employers (including the Brookings Institution,, and the U.S. Senate), several dozen "mom-and-pop" charter schools, and schools specifically focused on leadership, theater, public service, or learning the English language.

From the parent's perspective, this new world is user-friendly. Many families opt to place all their children in a school that is convenient to their home or workplace. But it is also easy for parents to select schools on the basis of their pedagogy, test scores, or support services.

The District's new education system is a result of numerous factors: a wealth of information on schools, the snipping of red tape, and capital funding from public and private sources. But the trade-off is strict results-based accountability, made possible by the District's strong new academic standards and assessment system, and a steadfast commitment to reward success and intervene in cases of failure. For D.C. schools, accountability has come to mean both attracting and retaining clients and fulfilling the terms of their charters and contracts. But DCEC is not an autocratic bureaucracy. Any school that feels it has been dealt an injustice can make its way to the District Court of Education Appeals. That court also operates a less formal "magistrate's office" where students, parents, or teachers can come if their dispute with a school was not handled to their satisfaction by DCEC, or if their grievance is with DCEC itself. The mere existence of the Education Appeals Court helps keep DCEC on its toes (as do other education watchdog groups).