By Matthew Ladner, Ph.D. at The Heritage Foundation

Although Washington, DC, public schools have made impressive strides, a great deal of work remains to be done. Congress, which has jurisdiction over the District, should establish a robust system of parental choice in education in the District—a powerful reform that would put parents in charge of education. Specifically, by converting the District of Columbia into an all-ESA district—establishing education savings accounts for all DC students—Congress would empower DC parents to enroll their children in schools of their choice—while also being able to use ESA funds to pay for other education-related services and products. Given the limitations of government to meaningfully improve a school system that receives $29,000 per child per year, policymakers should free District parents to reform education from the bottom up, allowing families to choose educational options that fit their children’s unique learning needs.

Washington, DC, Public Schools (DCPS) receives $29,000 per pupil—the highest per pupil revenues in the nation. Despite improvement, DCPS ranks near the bottom of American urban districts, with a majority of students failing to obtain the knowledge and skills necessary for success in life. What educational improvement has occurred in the Washington, DC, public school system seems to be concentrated heavily among the most advantaged students. Educational options should serve as an engine of upward mobility and opportunity for all students in the nation’s capital. In order to realize this goal, however, a new approach to education reform is needed.

Instead of attempting to restructure or “reform” DCPS, policymakers should free District parents to reform education from the bottom up. Congress should consider two approaches to accomplish such reform. With jurisdiction over Washington, DC, Congress can either restructure DCPS per pupil funding so that it is delivered through parent-controlled education savings accounts, or it can create a stand-alone education savings account program that is universally available to all children in the District, for which families would opt-in. Either approach would make education financing in the District entirely student-centered, thereby empowering every family to choose from a variety of educational options that fit their children’s unique learning needs.

District, Charter, and Private School Choice: Finance and Enrollment

The District of Columbia has three sets of providers of publicly funded K–12 education: The District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS), public charter schools, and the Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP), which is a school voucher program for low-income District students. Congress passed the charter school law for the District in 1996, and Opportunity Scholarships in cooperation with then-Mayor Anthony Williams in 2003. In the 2015–2016 school year, DCPS enrolled 48,653 students; charter schools enrolled 39,096 students.[1] During the 2014–2015 school year, 1,442 students enrolled in the Opportunity Scholarship Program.[2]

The greatest taxpayer financial commitment, both in total and on a per pupil basis, goes to DCPS. Data collected by the United States Census Bureau show DCPS as having by far the highest revenue per pupil in the country when compared to statewide averages at $29,427. This per pupil figure could comfortably pay the average tuition and fees costs for three students to attend state universities at the average national cost for in-state students.[3] see charts and read more here