D.C. school ratings up among system parents, but doubts remain

A majority of D.C. public school parents give the system positive marks for the first time in a decade, according to a new survey by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Fully 53 percent of those with children in the public school system say the city’s 123 schools are doing a “good” or “excellent” job, a sharp jump from January 2008, when 31 percent of parents expressed such approval. Former chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, a divisive figure during her 31 / 2-year tenure, is viewed more favorably than she was before her resignation in October. The survey found that 55 percent of all D.C. adults — parents and others — approve of the job she did in office, up 11 percentage points from late last summer.

The findings are consistent with other signs of slow but discernible progress in the 45,600-student system, which was placed under mayoral control in 2007 after years of abysmal academic performance. Those signs include the first enrollment growth in more than 40 years and impressive gains in math and reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

“We are very positive about our schools,” said Eric Anderson, 43, who has a daughter heading into the school system’s Montessori at Logan program in August. Another daughter is in the Washington Latin Public Charter School.

“For the longest time, once your kid got into first or second grade, you would move to Arlington or Bethesda,” he said. But Anderson added that he seldom hears about such moves anymore.

Despite the rising approval ratings among public school parents, the survey found views of the general public are still downright negative in some areas. About 60 percent of D.C. residents rate the public schools as “not so good” or “poor.” More than six in 10 see the system as doing a bad job in preparing students for college or the workplace. Those opinions are held most strongly by white residents and blacks with college degrees, and even by a large share of school system parents.

Many parents still view enrolling in the public schools as risky.

“People don’t want to take a chance. That’s the problem D.C. schools face. You don’t want to experiment on your own children,” said Bruce Lehman, 65, a lawyer whose daughter graduated from Sidwell Friends private school eight years ago. He cited the decision of the Clintons and the Obamas to send their daughters to Sidwell.

“Nothing says it more than that,” Lehman said.

This year, Congress approved an extension of a federal program that provides vouchers to help students from some low-income D.C. families attend private or parochial schools. The survey found that nearly 70 percent of parents with children in the system support such tuition aid. Overall, nearly two-thirds of residents back vouchers, with positive sentiment higher among African Americans.

Residents remain ambivalent about the rapidly growing public charter sector, which serves 28,000 students. Forty-one percent consider the independently operated charters better than regular public schools; 42 percent say they are about the same. The favorable rating rises to a slight majority, however, among residents younger than 30.

Rhee’s successor, Kaya Henderson, who was unanimously confirmed as chancellor Tuesday by the D.C. Council, said she was “thrilled” by the parent appraisals.

“I think we have come a long way, but we have a long way to go,” said Henderson, Rhee’s former top deputy, who held the chancellor’s post on an acting basis after Rhee’s departure. “But it’s nice to know that our work has been recognized and that parents feel like something good is happening.”

Comments from some survey respondents reflect Henderson’s view of a changing atmosphere in city schools.

Toni Burnette, 22, a college student who is helping to raise her cousins, said she sees less complacency among teachers, some of whom once seemed to regard themselves as immune to removal. All educators now face annual evaluations and in some cases are subject to dismissal for poor ratings.

“I think the teachers are a little bit more responsive and active,” said Burnette, a Banneker High School graduate whose cousins attend MacFarland Middle School and Phelps Architecture, Construction and Engineering High School.

“There’s definitely a lack of comfort that they had before, when it was like, ‘I’ve been here the longest, so I’m going to stay,’ ” she said.

Tracie Taylor, 40, whose daughter just graduated from Dunbar High School and who has another entering her sophomore year at McKinley Technology High School, said she has been pleased with the experience at both schools. “At McKinley, the curriculum is challenging the students and making them accountable,” Taylor said. She also praised Dunbar Principal Stephen Jackson for improving the school culture since taking over in December from Friends of Bedford, a New York school management group.

The rising ratings among school system parents coincide with an improved rearview mirror image for Rhee among all residents. Her turbulent tenure included negotiation of a new contract with the teachers union, closure of more than two dozen underenrolled schools and establishment of a rigorous new teacher evaluation system. Her approval rating peaked at 59 percent in early 2008 but receded to 44 percent in August, shortly before then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, who had appointed Rhee, lost the Democratic primary.

Rhee remains controversial, however, among big segments of the population. Her overall approval rating has swelled to 55 percent, but a large racial gap remains, and a slight majority of African Americans continue to disapprove of the job she did as chancellor.

Anderson credits Henderson with staying the course, sustaining Rhee’s agenda and calming the passions of recent school reform debate.

“It seems like she has followed through on everything Michelle Rhee had laid out,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s because a lot of the heavy lifting has already been done, but there isn’t the same rancor or controversy about it.” Anderson added that it probably helps that Henderson is African American.

“There’s a racial element involved that’s made it easier for her to operate,” he said.

Henderson remains largely unknown to D.C. residents, however. In all, 54 percent of those surveyed expressed “no opinion” of the new chancellor. Those who held favorable views by a roughly 3 to 1 margin.

The telephone poll was conducted May 10-31, among a random sample of 1,342 District adults. The margin of sampling error for the full poll is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Polling manager Peyton M. Craighill and polling director Jon Cohen contributed to this report.

Bill Turque, who covers Montgomery County government and politics, has spent more than thirty years as a reporter and editor for The Washington Post, Newsweek, the Dallas Times Herald and The Kansas City Star.
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