D.C. Parents Look Outside the Box for Public Education

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 30, 2008

By the time she reached eighth grade, Julia Egger had attended a public elementary school and a Catholic grammar school near her home in Northwest Washington. But her family never seriously considered the local public high school, which, despite many accolades, has not been able to shed a reputation as unsafe.

Instead, Julia's parents are paying $13,627 this year to send her to Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, a public school in Maryland.

Among D.C. families of certain means, the start of high school creates a dilemma: send your child to a flawed neighborhood school, run the gantlet of private school applications and waiting lists, or move? Dozens of families choose yet another option: paying tuition for their children to attend schools in other counties or states under a little-known but nearly universal rule that allows public schools to accept students from other jurisdictions -- for a price.

"Everybody is always in a quandary about what to do about the public schools here," said Claudia Egger, mother of Julia, 18. "It just occurred to me to call" Bethesda-Chevy Chase, in Montgomery County.

Few public school parents would contemplate -- and many could not afford -- five-figure tuition for a service they are provided for free. Yet the Eggers think they are getting a bargain.

They didn't want their daughter at the local school, Woodrow Wilson Senior High. Julia told her mother, "I don't want to walk through a metal detector when I go to school every day."

Private school was an option but a costly one, with tuition approaching $30,000 at top schools.

And they weren't going to move.

"We couldn't not live in D.C.," said Claudia Egger, whose husband, Robert, runs D.C. Central Kitchen, an anti-poverty charity.

Tuition-paying students are a small but significant part of the broader movement known as school choice. Several states have enacted open enrollment policies in recent years that require educators to allow families at low-performing schools to transfer not only within but outside their school system, according to the Education Commission of the States.

In Montgomery, Julia is one of 58 students attending 26 county schools this year under the nonresident tuition option, which allows principals to admit students from outside the county if the school has space. Most come from the adjoining D.C. and Prince George's County school systems, each of which has dozens of schools cited for low performance under the No Child Left Behind law. Tuition approximates the per-student cost of an education in Montgomery schools.

The tuition-paying students are scattered across the region: 20 in Fairfax County, 30 in Charles County, six in Loudoun County and one in Alexandria. They pay from $6,415 to $18,886. Even the distressed D.C. school system has 60 students paying tuition, most of them drawn to a handful of specialized high schools.

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