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.
Nonresident tuition rules benefit families who want their children in a neighboring school system -- and, in most cases, a specific high school -- badly enough to pay. A few families want the convenience of having a child schooled near a parent's job or access to a unique program such as that at Duke Ellington School of the Arts in the District. In most cases, though, they are simply buying a better school.
Bethesda-Chevy Chase, or B-CC, ranks 44th in the nation on the 2007 Challenge Index, which rates 1,258 top schools on college-preparatory Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and Cambridge testing. Wilson High, one of the finest D.C. schools, ranks 343rd. Wilson, however, fares poorly on other measures: It's one of 31 secondary schools in the D.C. system sanctioned for low scores under the federal mandate, and the school has been vexed by discipline and maintenance issues.
Julia and her best friend, Nina Konownitzine, applied to several Catholic high schools, although neither is Catholic. Julia wasn't accepted by her top choices. Nina, 17, was accepted at one school and put on the waiting list at another. Both charge in excess of $19,000 a year.
Then one day, Claudia Egger telephoned Mila Salazar, Nina's mother. Julia had just been accepted at Bethesda-Chevy Chase. Salazar rushed home, wrote a letter and faxed it to the school. By the end of the day, her daughter was in.
Both parents count themselves lucky. Sean Bulson, principal of Bethesda-Chevy Chase, turns down many more nonresident students than he accepts; the school is overenrolled. Even so, B-CC has 11 nonresident students, the most of any school in Montgomery, which speaks both to its quality and to its location near the District line. Julia and Nina were admitted before Bulson became principal.
"I get applications from fabulous families, fabulous kids with great records who I would love to have," Bulson said. "But I don't think it's fair, at this point."
Nina grew up in the Palisades section of the District. Like Julia, she attended a mix of public and parochial schools. Many of her friends chose to attend Wilson High. But her mother thought that she lacked the academic focus to succeed there. And the family didn't want to move. "We're not suburban types," Salazar said. They also didn't really want Nina in one of the elite private schools, which Salazar regards as "little islands of perfection."
"I wanted her to go to a school that was really representative of our world," Salazar said. "And B-CC seemed to be dead-on in terms of rich and poor and black and white." The school population is about 60 percent white, and about one-fifth of the students come from families that have received federally subsidized meals.
Both girls are now seniors in the International Baccalaureate program, which exposes them to college-level material. Montgomery has become the center of their social universe, which can pose a problem on weekends.
"The fact that I have to drive to Bethesda every time I want to visit my friends there, that's a little inconvenient," Nina said.
She's taken to school by her father, who works in Silver Spring. Julia is taken by her mother. They leave before 7 a.m.
The parents say they can always count on a reaction when they explain the arrangement to friends.
"People in D.C. say, 'Ooh, can I do that?' " Salazar said. "And people in Bethesda say, 'You're paying $12,000 to go to B-CC?' "