Citywide Education Progress Report


Key Takeaways: System Reforms

Washington, D.C., has put a number of initiatives in place focused on school talent and improving the choice process for families. The education system lags in being responsive to family concerns and in strategically coordinating school supply decisions across DC Public Schools (DCPS) and the DC Public Charter School Board (PCSB).


Do students have access to a high-quality education?


Do school choice and supply meet family needs? This goal addresses how well the city is doing with providing families access to quality schools. We look at what the city is doing to ensure quality schools are in every neighborhood, and how well the choice process is working for families who want to use it.


► Does the school supply represent an array of models?

Of the new schools that opened or expanded between 2014 and 2017, over a third include nontraditional models like single gender and blended learning. The recently launched Design Lab supports schools designing alternative pathway models. However, school models—like Montessori, dual language, and expeditionary—are not well distributed, and there are not enough. DCPS and PCSB are both attuned to the need for more model variety and are each working to improve this. Interviewees reported that families have trouble understanding the types of school options available using My School DC’s information guide. In our 2017 survey, about half (53%) of families who said there is programmatic variety among schools also reported struggling to find a school that is a good fit.


► Is the enrollment process working for families?

Since 2013, D.C. has had a unified application and lottery system, My School DC. Choice fairs and family supports help families navigate the system. Generally, interviewees said that the system is an improvement, but noted that some families still find the application, acceptance, and enrollment process daunting, especially for students requiring specialized services. Of families we surveyed in 2017, however, only about a fifth said the application process was challenging. Interviewees said that the real difficulty is the lack of quality options in places where families need them. In spring 2018, only 64% of families were initially matched at one of the schools they applied to through the lottery.


► Is transportation working for families?

Since it was launched in 2013, D.C.’s “Kids Ride Free” program has been regularly updated to improve student access. In the 2018-19 school year, all students will ride public bus and rail for free using standard transit cards. However, using public transit limits options for elementary students who need an adult to accompany them, and interviewees feared that this has a cascading effect on student learning in later grades. Interviewees in 2018 identified transportation as the top barrier to families accessing the choice system. And nearly a quarter of families surveyed in 2017 said that finding transportation was a challenge when applying to schools—a greater percentage than those identifying enrollment or information as a barrier.


► Do families have the information they need and know how to use it?

My School DC has a school finder with academic and curricular information for all participating schools and updates it annually based on input from the Parent Advisory Committee. Learn DC, operated by the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE), provides additional data on discipline, attendance, and mobility. In the 2018-19 school year, Learn DC will rate all schools in the city using the same five-star system, in addition to information published by DCPS and PCSB. However, there is no specific information about special education services, and some interviewees noted that it can be hard to make sense of the data to understand school climate and find a good fit. The nonprofit DC School Reform Now helps families in Wards 7 and 8 understand their options. In our 2017 survey, about a fifth of families said finding enough information was a barrier—the same percentage that struggled with the application process.


► Is the city strategically managing its school portfolio?

In our 2017 survey, only 10% of families worried that D.C. public schools were getting worse. However, interviewees noted that DCPS has few high-quality comprehensive high schools. The distribution of school quality and school models in low-income neighborhoods is also a concern. Data and criteria are used to inform school supply decisions, and PCSB is a strong charter school authorizer. Interviewees noted that district and charter schools open where they are needed, but the lack of facilities is a barrier to more strategic siting. Education leaders are pursuing several initiatives to improve citywide portfolio management. A common school performance framework will launch in fall 2018, and the D.C. Cross-Sector Collaboration Task Force released recommendations in February 2018 for better coordination in opening, closing, and siting schools. PCBS is encouraging operators to consider particular models in specific neighborhoods—but interviewees noted that both sectors may need to move toward a clear request for proposal process to seed school opening and restart.

Is the education system continuously improving?


Do schools have the resources they need? School improvement happens at the school level, but making sure resources are available requires sound, citywide policy. Having the right talent in a city is critical for schools to be able to provide students with a quality education. Schools should also have control over their budgets so they have the resources to address the needs of their student population.


► Do schools have the kinds of leaders they need?

District and charter leaders do not perceive that there is a problem with having enough school leaders, and the city’s long-time emphasis on talent has set a high bar for quality. D.C. reportedly has a higher principal retention rate than the national average. However, interviewees noted that both district and charter schools do not have enough quality applicants for the schools with the highest needs. Both sectors report preferring to hire from within.


► Do schools have the kinds of teachers they need?

DCPS has long invested in the teacher workforce as a way to improve the quality of education. Today, the city has many pipelines that attract and train new teachers. The Chancellor’s Teacher’s Cabinet advises the DCPS chancellor on policy, and DCPS has invested in revamping evaluations and incentives, with some positive results. While quality is a lesser concern, district and charter schools reportedly face shortages every year. A data collection initiative spearheaded by OSSE and supported by TNTP provides the district and charter schools with individualized reports so they can better understand their talent challenges.


► Does funding equitably follow students?

DCPS allocates less than 5% of its budget via a student-based allocation formula. Some analysis has been done to explore the viability of this formula. There is interest at DCPS to pursue weighted student funds with school-based flexibility, but interviewees noted that technical support and leadership  are needed to roll out such an initiative. PCSB charter schools are provided funding on a per-pupil basis (based on analysis of fiscal year 2017-18).

Is the education strategy rooted in the community?


Is the whole community engaged? Education is a citywide endeavor. When families, community organizations, and city leaders have the opportunity to provide feedback and share in the vision, the strategy is more likely to be sustainable and meet the needs of all students. In this goal, we look at how well the city is doing with engaging key stakeholders.


► Is there a strong and deep coalition of support for the education strategy?

The mayor’s Cross-Sector Task Force provides a forum for district and charter sector leaders to meet with representatives from the mayor’s office and OSSE. Education was a top issue in 2018 D.C. council candidate debates, and the public has generally supported the direction of the city’s education system. However, a series of district graduation and enrollment scandals in 2018 sparked debate about the city’s governance structure and direction. The scandals also generated new and ongoing discussion about the mayor’s role—such as whether it should be more central in defining a vision for the city or more involved in maintaining quality.


► Are a variety of groups engaged in education?

A variety of nonprofits, funders, and local business groups are involved in education. Several small organizations are engaged in advocating for improving education quality, but these tend to be separated by sector. The city’s faith-based community is not very engaged. One 2017 interviewee noted that D.C. has no shortage of groups involved in education, but they lack coordination and sometimes end up competing for limited resources rather than working together.


► Does the city engage families in educational decisions that impact them?

Having models that are responsive to family needs and are located where families most want them emerged as a key issue in 2017 and 2018. D.C. education systems are taking steps to be more responsive to families about school openings, restarts, and redesigns. The nonprofits PAVE and FOCUS helped a community group develop an RFP for a new school at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling. In 2018, PCSB asked an existing dual-language operator to replicate in an area that had no bilingual charter school option. DCPS reported wanting to engage families more during school redesign. Interviewees noted that the district has procedures in place to let families know about school closures, and in the charter sector, the degree of engagement in school closure decisions varies greatly depending on the operator.


► Does the education system respond to community feedback?

Families have several avenues for providing input on schoolwide and citywide education issues, including the annual release of the DCPS budget and facility plan. The PCSB has open monthly meetings and recently added parent and community liaisons. Despite these avenues, community interviewees perceived that families have little voice in D.C. and reported that the education system has poor feedback loops so families do not know how decisions are made. Interviewees suggested that more systems are needed so community members can give early input on citywide reform efforts. Engagement at the school level varies by school.

Data & Scoring

Where did we get this information?

► Interviews with district, charter, and community leaders

► Policy documents from district, charter, and state websites

► School data from each city

► A 400-parent survey administered in March, 2017 in Cleveland, Denver, Indianapolis, Memphis, New Orleans, Oakland, and Washington, D.C.

How did we score the
system reforms and goals?

Each indicator is scored with a rubric on a 4-point scale. We added the scores for the indicators to get an overall goal score. See the Methodology & Resources page for details.

Score Levels


About Washington, D.C.

Washington, D.C., started opening charter schools in the mid 1990s. Currently, about half of the city’s schools are operated by the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS). The DC Public Charter School Board (DCPCSB) authorizes the other half. The two organizations collaborate with other city agencies on many initiatives, including a common lottery system launched in 2013. A new chancellor took the helm of DCPS in 2017, but was replaced by Dr. Amanda Alexander as Interim Chancellor one year later.

School Choice in the City

All families have a right to attend their in-boundary school. Families can also apply to charter schools, out-of-boundary DCPS schools on a space-availability basis, and selective DCPS high schools.

Governance Model

DCPS and the Office of the State Superintendent of Education are under mayoral control. The Education Reform Amendment Act of 2007 also made DCPCSB an independent agency of the DC government and the sole authorizer of charter schools in the city.

2015 District and Charter Student Body

Enrollment: 87,344
Race and ethnicity: 72% black, 17% Hispanic, 8% white, 3% other
Low-income: 79% free and reduced-price lunch

2017 School Composition

Source: Enrollment data from EDFacts, 2014-15.
School data from researcher analysis of public records, 2016-17.

The Center on Reinventing Public Education is a research and policy analysis center at the University of Washington Bothell developing systemwide solutions for K–12 public education. Questions? Email crpe@uw.edu.