The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Post poll finds record high 44 percent rate District public schools positively

D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee and Mayor Muriel E. Bowser. The public’s perception of city schools is improving, a Washington Post poll found. (Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)
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Before Alisha Jamison had twins in 2008, this is what she knew about the District’s public schools: The polarizing chancellor at the time, Michelle Rhee, was at war with the teachers union. Campuses were shutting down. School buildings were dilapidated. Jamison assumed she might have to decamp to the suburbs so her children could go to a good school.

But Jamison, who lives in Congress Heights in Southeast Washington, managed to secure slots for the twins in a city preschool across town.

Now her children are in a Capitol Hill middle school, and Jamison is glad she decided to stick with the District’s traditional public school system, convinced the city is doing a good job educating its young residents.

This view of the city’s public schools reflects an increasingly common stance among District residents, according to the results of a Washington Post poll released Monday. The poll finds that 92 percent of parents with a child attending a traditional public or charter school in the District regard their child’s school as “excellent” or “good.”

“We saw improvements from the first year they got there all the way until their fifth-grade year,” Jamison said, describing her children’s elementary school.

But when it comes to the public schools overall — as distinct from the campus their children attend — parents are less enthusiastic: 64 percent had a positive view, up from 47 percent in 2014.

Citywide, a record high 44 percent of adults — those who have children in city schools and those who don’t — have a positive view of the city’s traditional public and charter school sectors. That’s a dramatic increase from the 23 percent of residents who held this view in 2008 and 38 percent in 2014.

[Read full poll results | See results by group]

Black residents’ views of the public schools have barely budged since the poll was last taken five years ago, with 45 percent rating the District’s traditional public and charter schools positively in 2019 compared with 49 percent in 2014.

For white residents, perception of the schools has improved, with 37 percent rating the schools positively compared with 24 percent in 2014. Washingtonians who identify as neither black nor white also rate D.C. Public Schools significantly higher now.

The poll results also highlight the personal, complicated relationship parents have with the city’s schools.

Jamison, for example, approves of her children’s Capitol Hill school but did not consider sending them to a campus in her Southeast Washington neighborhood, which has a high concentration of low-income families. She lamented that her neighborhood has too many charter schools — which are publicly funded and privately operated — consuming too much of the city’s finite resources in an area that needs more help.

But what mattered most in forming her assessment of the city’s schools was her children’s experience in the school system.

“This is my personal view, and it’s based on my interactions with teachers and parent involvement,” Jamison said. “How my child is improving from the beginning of the school year to the end of the school year.”

The increasingly positive view of the city’s schools follows years of increased spending on education and campus renovations. The traditional public school system has invested billions of dollars in modernizing and rebuilding schools.

In both the traditional and charter sectors, enrollment has grown and test scores have slowly improved, though the achievement gap between students from wealthy and low-income families — one of the widest in the nation — persists. Test scores lag behind national averages.

Four in 10 D.C. residents say public schools have improved in the past five years, while 8 percent say they’ve gotten worse and 35 percent say they are about the same. Public school parents are much more likely to report improvement, with 59 percent saying D.C. schools have gotten better.

Washingtonians regard charter schools as slightly better than traditional public campuses, although the divide in perception has narrowed in recent years.

About one-third of residents say charter schools are generally better than traditional public schools, down from about 4 in 10 in 2014. Only 8 percent of residents say the traditional public school system is better than the charter sector, and a 39 percent plurality say the two types of schools are about the same quality.

Cary Joshi says she purchased her home in Woodley Park so her children could attend Oyster-
Adams Bilingual School, a popular Spanish-language immersion school in the traditional system. She called the school “amazing.”

But her overall rating of District schools is more lackluster.

“I know that Oyster-Adams is not the norm and there are schools in both the traditional and charter sectors that are struggling,” Joshi said. “The D.C. school system is small, we have a huge tax base, and I struggle to understand why we can’t do more so that all schools are like Oyster-Adams.”

Residents interviewed after the poll said they are aware of education scandals that emerged in recent years. In the past two years, D.C. Public Schools has had three leaders. A 2018 citywide investigation determined that many D.C. students received their diplomas without meeting requirements.

But while those scandals eroded some residents’ confidence in the people running the city’s education system, The Post survey shows the controversies did not seem to alter perceptions of the schools themselves.

Nearly 6 in 10 residents say Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) is doing an “excellent” or “good job” improving schools, her highest rating yet and a higher score than she received on four other issues. Her positive rating on improving schools is the highest for any mayor since 2000, eclipsing Adrian Fenty’s 52 percent mark in 2008 and Vincent C. Gray’s high-point of 38 percent in 2014.

“The lead indicator for us is that our kid is happy in kindergarten,” said Jonathan Burr, who lives in Columbia Heights and has two young children at a charter school. “We are keenly aware of the scandals . . . but unless it’s about the safety of kids, it’s not something that necessarily sits up top.”

Like Burr’s children, most students in the District do not attend their assigned neighborhood campus. Instead, they participate in the D.C. school lottery system, which allows parents to enter a lottery to secure a slot at a traditional public or charter school. Parents who want to send their child to a city preschool must also use the lottery. In 2019, 65 percent of lottery applicants matched with a school, according to city data.

The Post poll finds that 6 in 10 Washingtonians with children in public schools — including traditional public schools and charter schools — believe the lottery is fair, while 38 percent say it is unfair.

Burr said he wanted to send his children to the neighborhood school two blocks from their home. But they did not secure a seat at the school through the lottery, so they instead enrolled in a charter campus.

Steven Davis, who lives in Manor Park in Northwest Washington, said his three children attend a top-ranked charter school. He didn’t consider his neighborhood school. If they did not get a seat at the charter school, Davis said, he probably would have educated them at home.

He doesn’t think getting into a quality school should rely on luck — and believes the lottery is unfair.

“It’s a crapshoot,” Davis said. “It shouldn’t be that way.”

This Post poll was conducted by telephone Nov. 12-17 among a random sample of 905 adult residents of the District. Interviews were conducted by live interviewers; 75 percent of the residents were interviewed on cellphones and 25 percent on landlines. The overall results have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus four percentage points.

Scott Clement contributed to this report.

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