The per­fect les­son on school choice

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS -

With her di­vi­sive con­fir­ma­tion hear­ing and Vice Pres­i­dent Pence’s tiebreak­ing vote to se­cure her place in Pres­i­dent Trump’s Cabi­net, Ed­u­ca­tion Sec­re­tary Betsy DeVos turned na­tional head­lines to­ward pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion for the first time in years. Her plat­form is sin­gu­lar: school choice. Her ed­u­ca­tion ef­forts in the past fo­cused on ex­pand­ing school choice for stu­dents in Michi­gan, in­clud­ing char­ter schools run by for­profit com­pa­nies, vouch­ers for in­de­pen­dent and re­li­gious schools and more. While our or­ga­ni­za­tion strongly sup­ports school choice, we know that with­out ap­pro­pri­ate ac­count­abil­ity mech­a­nisms, school choice means a dan­ger­ous gam­ble for un­der­served stu­dents. When pushed by Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), DeVos fa­mously dodged his ques­tions about equal ac­count­abil­ity for all schools re­ceiv­ing fed­eral funds.

Luck­ily, there is much that DeVos can learn here in her new back yard of Wash­ing­ton.

Not far from the Capi­tol, she’ll find Gonzaga Col­lege High School, where the Higher Achieve­ment Pro­gram was founded in 1975 on the prin­ci­ple of school choice. Our founder, a teacher at Gonzaga — Greg Gan­non — saw the out­stand­ing ed­u­ca­tion in­side the school’s walls and the dearth of op­por­tu­nity in the sur­round­ing neigh­bor­hood, and he took ac­tion. Through its rig­or­ous, multi-year af­ter-school and sum­mer pro­grams, Higher Achieve­ment has helped place thou­sands of stu­dents in top high schools in Wash­ing­ton, Bal­ti­more, Rich­mond and Pittsburgh.

Our pro­gram is ag­nos­tic on school type: pri­vate, parochial, char­ter or pub­lic. What mat­ters most is that the school is the best choice for each child. Ev­ery year, we place bud­ding per­form­ers at Duke Elling­ton School of the Arts (an arts-based pub­lic mag­net school in Ge­orge­town); fu­ture sen­a­tors at Thur­good Mar­shall Academy (a law- and jus­tice-fo­cused char­ter school in Ana­cos­tia); in­tel­lec­tu­als at Ben­jamin Ban­neker Aca­demic High School (a pub­lic school near Howard Univer­sity) and ac­tivists at Sid­well Friends School (a pri­vate, in­de­pen­dent school in North­west Wash­ing­ton); and, fol­low­ing our his­tory, many of our boys con­tinue to be placed at Gonzaga.

We are proud that 85 per­cent of our schol­ars at­tend a top-tier high school, most of them pub­lic or pub­lic char­ters, and 95 per­cent grad­u­ate from high school on time (nearly dou­ble the rate of their peers).

Th­ese out­comes are im­pres­sive. But they re­quire an en­vi­ron­ment of strong choices and sup­ports for fam­i­lies to make in­formed de­ci­sions. We meet one-on-one with fam­i­lies of mid­dle-school stu­dents ev­ery week for months to en­sure that they un­der­stand their ed­u­ca­tion op­tions and can mean­ing­fully help their chil­dren ap­ply to schools.

Ten years ago, char­ter schools were pro­lif­er­at­ing in Wash­ing­ton with­out proper ac­count­abil­ity. I wit­nessed ques­tion­able char­ter op­er­a­tors at­tempt­ing to at­tract our schol­ars and fam­i­lies to at­tend their low­per­form­ing schools. Th­ese char­ters were al­lowed to op­er­ate with abysmal test scores and with­out ba­sic safety in class­rooms. More re­cently with new lead­er­ship, the D.C. Pub­lic Char­ter School Board has be­come a na­tional model. Poor schools are forced to im­prove or are closed; ex­cel­lent schools are en­cour­aged to ex­pand.

Wash­ing­ton is of­ten home to con­gres­sional pub­lic pol­icy ex­per­i­ments, and it has op­er­ated a voucher pro­gram for sev­eral years. I’ve wit­nessed en­ter­pris­ing, low-in­come fam­i­lies take full ad­van­tage of vouch­ers. Many par­ents work mul­ti­ple jobs and cob­ble to­gether vouch­ers, schol­ar­ships and tu­ition pay­ments to cover the costs of in­de­pen­dent schools. While vouch­ers can open doors to strong schools to un­der­served stu­dents in rare in­stances, this ap­proach also al­lows pub­lic dol­lars to flow to pri­vate schools with­out full trans­parency about their re­sults (test scores, grad­u­a­tion rates, col­lege ma­tric­u­la­tion rates). Cer­tainly, they do not get equal ac­count­abil­ity.

School choice is com­plex. For choice to change the odds for stu­dents, it must be paired with ac­count­abil­ity and trans­parency.

The writer is chief ex­ec­u­tive of Higher Achieve­ment.

EVE­LYN HOCKSTEIN FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Diane Gar­cia, an 11th-grader, works with 10th-grader Her­mela Wendwe­sen dur­ing a math class at Cap­i­tal City Pub­lic Char­ter School in 2015.

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