The 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination has special resonance in the nation’s capital, which erupted in rioting that engulfed many neighborhoods as news of his death spread. Over three days, 13 people were killed, hundreds injured and 7,600 arrested. Local businesses were looted and burned, destroying complete neighborhoods in the process, some of which still suffer from the devastation today. The federal government deployed 13,000 troops from the Army, Marines and National Guard after President Lyndon Johnson saw smoke rising above 14th Street from the White House.
Long desolate, bereft of care and investment, and plagued by poverty and crime, many areas struck by this disaster have since been caught up in Washington’s real estate boom. Much of our city’s new prosperity, however, has largely bypassed the African-American community that made up most of the population of these areas destroyed by the riots.
The ruin left in the riot’s wake brought some change — the 1973 Home Rule Act introduced an elected city government, and civil rights legislation ended federal and District workplace segregation and made job and housing discrimination illegal — but the destruction led to long-term decline. As the population shrank and the economy struggled, the tax base contracted even as social needs grew.
Dr. King perceptively knew that, apart from from his belief in nonviolent protest, education was the key to liberation. In his Morehouse College lecture, he wrote that education has a two-fold function: utility and culture.
“The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically,” King wrote, but that was insufficient, “intelligence plus character” should be education’s true goal, King said. Unfortunately, the District let down its children by maintaining a dysfunctional, centralized education system that by the mid-1990s had simply lost its way.
But change eventually came and created the city we know today, which went from a three-quarters-of-a-million-dollar fiscal deficit and a population at a post-war low of a half-million to a $2.5 billion reserve fund and nearly three-quarters of a million residents, many new to the area. Critical to this success was the leadership of several reform-minded mayors and the recommendations made by the city’s Commission on Budget and Fiscal Priorities, chaired by Alice Rivlin, as well as legislation such as the 1995 D.C. School Reform Act.
This act allowed public charter schools to open in the District, and they have been critical to the city’s growth. These tuition-free, taxpayer-funded schools of choice proved so popular that today they educate nearly half the District’s public school students, with another 10,000 students on waitlists because there is no space to accommodate them. Operating independently of the traditional school system, these unique public schools design and develop their own educational programs while being held to a high standard for student outcomes and other metrics.
By any measure, charter schools have improved the District’s public education offerings, most strikingly in our city’s underserved subdivisions. On-time high school graduation rates are at a record high, and students’ standardized test scores continue to rise as curricula are enriched and after-school options expanded. Charter students in economically disadvantaged Wards Seven and Eight are more than twice as likely to meet state college and career readiness standards as their peers in city-run schools.
One of the many benefits of higher educational attainment citywide has been the transformation of long-neglected neighborhoods, some blighted by high adult functional illiteracy rates, and their revitalization as D.C.’s better-educated workforce attracts more investment and employment. Lately this has included Amazon’s interest in the area as a location for its second headquarters.
The District’s public charter school reform has also enabled schools to tailor their programs to meet the needs of the new century. There are now schools specializing in STEM disciplines — science, technology, engineering and math — while others have an emphasis on “expeditionary learning,” teaching students not only what to learn, but how. Some teach world languages, but all aim to eliminate the achievement gap between disadvantaged students and their more advantaged peers — as a result, charters educate a higher share of such students than the city-run system.
The road to education reform and scholastic success is long, but student enrollment in public schools has increased now for eight consecutive years, while higher city revenues have enabled more investment in the District’s future: its children. More must be done to realize Dr. King’s vision in the next half century, but with increased innovation and investment, future generations face a far brighter future than their predecessors.
Ramona Edelin is executive director of the D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools.