With her divisive confirmation hearing and Vice President Pence’s tie-breaking vote to secure her place in President Trump’s Cabinet, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos turned national headlines toward public education for the first time in years. Her platform is singular: school choice. Her education efforts in the past focused on expanding school choice for students in Michigan, including charter schools run by for-profit companies, vouchers for independent and religious schools and more. While our organization strongly supports school choice, we know that without appropriate accountability mechanisms, school choice means a dangerous gamble for underserved students. When pushed by Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), DeVos famously dodged his questions about equal accountability for all schools receiving federal funds.
Luckily, there is much that DeVos can learn here in her new back yard of Washington.
Not far from the Capitol, she’ll find Gonzaga College High School, where the Higher Achievement Program was founded in 1975 on the principle of school choice. Our founder, a teacher at Gonzaga — Greg Gannon — saw the outstanding education inside the school’s walls and the dearth of opportunity in the surrounding neighborhood, and he took action. Through its rigorous, multi-year after-school and summer programs, Higher Achievement has helped place thousands of students in top high schools in Washington, Baltimore, Richmond and Pittsburgh.
Our program is agnostic on school type: private, parochial, charter or public. What matters most is that the school is the best choice for each child. Every year, we place budding performers at Duke Ellington School of the Arts (an arts-based public magnet school in Georgetown); future senators at Thurgood Marshall Academy (a law- and justice-focused charter school in Anacostia); intellectuals at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School (a public school near Howard University) and activists at Sidwell Friends School (a private, independent school in Northwest Washington); and, following our history, many of our boys continue to be placed at Gonzaga.
We are proud that 85 percent of our scholars attend a top-tier high school, most of them public or public charters, and 95 percent graduate from high school on time (nearly double the rate of their peers).
These outcomes are impressive. But they require an environment of strong choices and supports for families to make informed decisions. We meet one-on-one with families of middle-school students every week for months to ensure that they understand their education options and can meaningfully help their children apply to schools.
Ten years ago, charter schools were proliferating in Washington without proper accountability. I witnessed questionable charter operators attempting to attract our scholars and families to attend their low-performing schools. These charters were allowed to operate with abysmal test scores and without basic safety in classrooms. More recently with new leadership, the D.C. Public Charter School Board has become a national model. Poor schools are forced to improve or are closed; excellent schools are encouraged to expand.
Washington is often home to congressional public policy experiments, and it has operated a voucher program for several years. I’ve witnessed enterprising, low-income families take full advantage of vouchers. Many parents work multiple jobs and cobble together vouchers, scholarships and tuition payments to cover the costs of independent schools. While vouchers can open doors to strong schools to underserved students in rare instances, this approach also allows public dollars to flow to private schools without full transparency about their results (test scores, graduation rates, college matriculation rates). Certainly, they do not get equal accountability.
School choice is complex. For choice to change the odds for students, it must be paired with accountability and transparency.
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