Children in school learn pretty early that Washington, D.C., the nation’s capital, is not a state. That, however, doesn’t stop government agencies, nonprofit organizations and companies from lumping it in with the states, as if it were one.
The District of Columbia was created to be a federal city under the jurisdiction of Congress. The District does have a popularly elected mayor and council that control daily life through a home rule law. But Congress can — and does when it wants — override decisions made locally and can even toss out elected officials. And the District still does not have voting representation in Congress.
Efforts have been undertaken for years to persuade Congress to make the District the country’s 51st state. And a measure to petition federal lawmakers to do that won handily on the 2016 D.C. ballot. But the District remains a city and not a state, even if it is often lumped in with the 50 states.
(Let’s quickly dispense with the argument that it doesn’t matter if the District is called a state when it isn’t. Whether it should be a state or not is a different argument. Bu the District has a single school district; virtually all states have many. The founders of the country created it as a federal city, without the autonomy of states, and it’s just wrong to say it is a state when it isn’t.)
If you buy something online and have to look through a list of states as part of your address, D.C. will be among them. The same is true for applications and forms of all kinds.
The College Board, which owns the SAT admissions exam, lumps the District in with the states on a Web page with 2018 SAT results. The page is titled: “State Results.” ACT Inc., which owns the other big college admissions exam, does the same thing: On a Web page titled “Average ACT Scores by State Graduating Class 2018,” you can find the District of Columbia right there between Alaska and Indiana (based on scores and not alphabetical order, obviously).
The Census Bureau does the same thing. The agency’s website has a section called “State Facts for Students.” It has a drop-down box that allows you to pick the state you want to research. There, between Delaware and Florida, is the District of Columbia. The facts don’t mention it isn’t a state.
Under a section on the D.C. fact page titled Geography, the “largest city” is listed as “Washington.” (There’s no mention it is the only city.) The same page also has a helpful feature with another drop-down box titled “May I have another state, please?” The District of Columbia is already loaded and it is asking readers to pick another state.
Puerto Rico is listed as a state, too, between Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. And after the last state on the alphabetical list, Wyoming, you can find U.S. territories: American Samoa, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands and U.S. Virgin Islands. For kids who don’t know their geography or U.S. history yet, that could be confusing.
That’s not the only mischaracterization of the District as a state.
The District has a government agency called the Office of the State Superintendent of Education. It was created and named in 2007, when the District’s troubled public school system was placed under mayoral control and as charter schools — which are publicly funded but operated outside of the system — were opening. According to its website:
The Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) is the state education agency for the District of Columbia charged with raising the quality of education for all DC residents. OSSE serves as the District’s liaison to the U.S. Department of Education and works closely with the District’s traditional and public charter schools to achieve its key functions:
Overseeing all federal education programs and related grants administered in the District of Columbia.
Developing state-level standards aligned with school, college, and workforce readiness expectations. . . .
State-level standards? Sigh.
The U.S. Education Department does the same thing. Its website has a page titled “State Contacts,” with a drop-down box that includes the District as a state. The commonwealths and territories are in a separate list. Unfortunately, anyone who goes to the page and seeks out contacts won’t find them. They aren’t listed anymore. It was last updated in March 2016, when Barack Obama was president.
There’s a table on the department’s website showing compulsory school attendance laws, by state, and the District is there again, between Delaware and Florida. No commonwealths and territories are included. In fact, there are many, many pages on the Education Department website with state lists going back years showing data that do the same thing.
The Education Department just issued its 2019 Condition of Education, an annual report packed with data about America’s schools. In some places, it distinguishes the District from states; for example, it says on Page 24:
Of the 19 jurisdictions (18 states and the District of Columbia) that had poverty rates higher than the national average, the majority (14) were located in the South.
Alas, on page 42, it says:
Between fall 2016 and fall 2028, total public school enrollment in prekindergarten through grade 12 is projected to increase by 2 percent (from 50.6 million to 51.4 million students), with changes across states ranging from an increase of 23 percent in the District of Columbia to a decrease of 12 percent in Connecticut.
Two pages later, the District is compared to states as if it were one:
In fall 2016, total public school enrollment ranged from fewer than 100,000 students in the District of Columbia (85,900 students), Vermont (88,400 students), and Wyoming (94,200 students), to 5.4 million students in Texas and 6.3 million students in California. In fall 2028, only Vermont (80,400 students) and Wyoming (92,800 students) are projected to have fewer than 100,000 students. California is projected to have the largest total public school enrollment in fall 2028 (6.1 million students), followed by Texas (5.9 million students).
Incidentally, it was President George Washington who selected the location along the Potomac River for the nation’s capital, and he called it “the federal city.” The D.C. History Center says:
At a meeting on September 9, 1791, the commissioners agreed that the “Federal district shall be called the ‘Territory of Columbia’ and the Federal City the ‘City of Washington.' ” (The term “district” was more popular than “territory” and officially replaced it when the capital was incorporated in 1871.) The name “Washington” was chosen by the commissioners to honor the President. “Columbia,” a feminine form of “Columbus,” was popularized as a name for America in patriotic poetry and song after the Revolutionary War. The term idealized America’s qualities as a land of liberty.