The share of District residents who think that the city’s public schools are performing well has more than doubled since the mid-1990s, but most continue to give low ratings to the schools, according to a new Washington Post poll.
That poor opinion of D.C. public education appears to be a weakness for Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), who is seeking reelection and draws far lower approval ratings for his school improvement efforts than in other key policy areas. Just 38 percent of city residents think that Gray has done an “excellent” or “good” job improving schools, compared with 55 percent who praise his efforts to reduce crime and 68 percent who say he has done well attracting new business to the District.
Gray has touted D.C. students’ math and reading scores — which grew faster than those of any other large city in the country on a 2013 national exam — as evidence that the District’s long-struggling public schools are on the right track. But many residents and parents see the city’s schools as falling short of their expectations and producing unacceptably low student achievement, especially in middle school and high school.
While enrollment in early childhood and elementary school programs has grown quickly in recent years, many middle schools and high schools have shrunk as families with older children continue to move to the suburbs and use private schools. About half of D.C. public school students are proficient in math and reading, and just six in 10 students graduate from high school on time.
“I look at the graduation rates. Yes, we’ve gone up, but it’s still atrocious,” said Margaret Albamonte, of Northwest Washington’s Shepherd Park neighborhood, who has a daughter at Wilson High School. “I’m not saying I have the solution. I just think it’s crazy how badly we’re broken. I don’t think there is a sense of emergency about the schools.”
In the Post poll, 38 percent of residents say the District’s public school performance is “excellent” or “good,” while 51 percent rate the schools as “not good” or “poor.” Positive ratings are up six percentage points since a 2011 Post-Kaiser Family Foundation survey, but are nearly the same as the 37 percent who rated the schools well four years ago, in the run-up to the 2010 mayoral primary in which Gray defeated incumbent Adrian M. Fenty (D).
The dissatisfaction might suggest an opening for Gray’s opponents in his party’s primary and D.C. Council member and potential mayoral candidate David A. Catania (I-At Large), who is chairman of the council’s Education Committee and has pledged to turn schools into a central issue should he run in the general election.
Views on D.C. public education continue to vary widely by demographics and income level, with some of the highest ratings among public school parents (47 percent positive), African Americans (49 percent) and people who have lived in the District for 40 years or longer (51 percent). Far less impressed with the schools were whites (24 percent positive) and people who have lived in the city for less than five years (27 percent).
The poll was conducted Jan. 9-12 among a random sample of 1,003 adult residents of the District reached on conventional and cellular phones. The overall error margin is four percentage points.
Gray entered office in 2010 after a period of controversial school reforms led by former chancellor Michelle Rhee, who made national headlines for closing dozens of schools and firing underperforming teachers and principals. Gray’s chancellor, Kaya Henderson, has continued Rhee’s policies but much more quietly and often with a softer touch.
Perhaps as a result, Henderson is a far less polarizing figure than her predecessor, according to The Post’s survey. In retrospect, Rhee’s approval — at 55 percent shortly after her departure — was higher than Henderson’s 46 percent. But Rhee’s disapproval was also higher than Henderson’s, with more than twice as many expressing strong disapproval of Rhee. Nearly one in three D.C. residents are neutral on Henderson.
“Kaya Henderson? I mostly don’t have an opinion,” said Colin Andrews, a Woodley Park lawyer with no children who said he has the impression that the pace of school improvement has slowed since Rhee left. “I wish she had stayed. I think she was doing some great work.”
Rhee drew overwhelming support from white residents as well as residents who, like Andrews, thought the school system was broken and perhaps saw Rhee as a force for needed change. But she was generally disliked by African Americans, including both those who rated the current schools positively or negatively.
But now the dynamic appears to have shifted: People who think the school system is doing well tend to approve of Henderson’s performance, regardless of race.
“Rhee, I thought she got the ball rolling. And I think Kaya Henderson has sort of picked up where she left off,” said Martin Schmunis, who said he is pleased with the experience his son, a first-grader, has had so far at Janney Elementary in Northwest.
Similarly, those who think the school system is on the wrong track tend to disapprove of Henderson, regardless of race.
Tracie Smith, of Southeast Washington, who said the school system’s special-education and discipline policies are in need of review, said Henderson is no better at listening to parents and is no more sensitive to the concerns of blacks than Rhee was.
“It’s the same; they come from the same brand,” said Smith, whose daughter attends Patterson Elementary.
Nearly half of students — 44 percent — attend the city’s public charter schools, which are funded with tax dollars but are independently run. Gray has largely embraced charter schools, recently announcing that his administration would make more than a dozen shuttered traditional schools available for lease by charters, which often struggle to find suitable real estate.
Residents’ opinion of charter schools’ performance has been virtually unchanged since 2011, according to The Post’s poll, with 41 percent saying that charters are generally better than the city’s traditional schools and 41 percent saying that the two are about the same. Just 7 percent say charters are worse than other public schools.
Education is not quite as crucial to voters as it was four years ago, when 89 percent of registered Democrats said the city’s public schools were very or extremely important in determining which mayoral candidate they would choose.
Still, nearly eight in 10 Democrats — and nearly nine in 10 public school parents — say public education will be an important factor in their vote for mayor this year. Gray leads among voters who say education is an “extremely important” factor, garnering 25 percent support. Council members Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) garners 17 percent while Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) wins 10 percent, with other candidates in the Democratic primary in single digits.
Scott Clement contributed to this report.