This month in 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, landmark legislation that placed discrimination based on race, color, religion, gender or national origin outside the law. The federal government prohibited unequal application of voter registration requirements and racial segregation in schools, employment and public accommodations. While enforcement powers were initially weak, these were strengthened in later years. Incredibly, there were 83 days of deliberations before the Senate roll-call: 27 against, 73 for.
Some 12 years after President Dwight Eisenhower had pledged to make segregation illegal in the District of Columbia in his first State of the Union address, the Act made good on his promise, previously stymied because the votes were not there. Our schools were desegregated, along with everything from public restrooms to lunch counters. That city is almost unimaginable to most of its current residents — the supposed capital of the “free” world, in which racial discrimination was written into law.
And yet inequalities persisted and resources continued to elude the city’s African-American population. Both desegregation and Home Rule failed to prevent the traditional public schools system from declining to the point of virtual collapse in the mid-1990s. Alongside and related to the lack of access to a quality public education for urban youth, good jobs and housing continued to elude many underserved neighborhoods.
Improvements aside, these inequalities persist, even in 2017.
Today, disparities in the quality of public education across the District are in sharp focus. A report issued by the District government five years ago estimated that an astonishing additional 40,000 quality seats were needed to adequately serve D.C.’s student population — nearly half of total enrollment — with the need most acute in the city’s disadvantaged communities. This lack of access to a high-quality public education leaves its mark on those who pass through the system, preventing access to society’s opportunities and rewards in adult life.
Slowly but surely, however, the city has stepped up to the plate with a series of reforms designed to bring the promise of civil rights in terms of equality of opportunity to all of our residents. In education, this has meant the introduction of public charter schools in 1996; the assumption of mayoral control over the traditional public school system in 2007; and federal government interventions such as the funds that are made available to D.C. traditional and public charter schools, as well as funding private school tuition for students from low-income families.
Chartered public schools educate nearly half of all District public school students. Like their traditional counterparts, charter schools are publicly funded and tuition-free, but also free to determine their own curriculum and school culture while being held accountable for improved student performance by the D.C. Public Charter School Board.
Charters’ contribution, combined with other education reforms, has transformed the odds — and life chances — of students. From a dire situation in the mid-1990s, in which an estimated half of public school students dropped out before graduating and the entire school system had become subject to a federal control board, the on-time — within four years — high school graduation rate is 73 percent for D.C. charters and 69 percent for D.C. Public Schools.
Over many years, standardized test scores have steadily improved as charter school enrollment has increased and served as a catalyst for DCPS reform, both under the old D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System and the new, more rigorous, Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) exam. Charters have led the way in these improvements, especially among economically disadvantaged students who represent a higher proportion of charter students than in the traditional system.
D.C.’s most vulnerable students have been important beneficiaries of this reform. Half of students in both charters and DCPS are considered “at risk” — defined as being homeless or in foster care; qualifying for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP); or overage and under-credited students.
Significantly, these higher test scores have been achieved while school choices have expanded and curricula have been enriched, and while the range of extracurricular has increased.
These changes have extended school choice from an option for the few to an opportunity for families of all income levels throughout the city. Such is the demand among parents that the growing charter sector cannot accommodate all of the students whose parents or guardians want them to attend one. Some 10,000 students are on waiting lists citywide.
The civil rights revolution in the nation’s capital remains incomplete — but in education, and all it influences, we are taking great strides forward.