A report on Washington D.C. public schools by the D.C. Policy Center finds enrollment has increased steadily since 2010, after decades of decline. Between school years 2014-2015 and 2018-2019, enrollment for pre-K through 12th grade grew by an average of 1,700 students per year.
In addition, DCPS test scores are improving faster than those in other cities. Compared with eight cities, D.C. moved from near the bottom of the list to the middle of the pack between 2003 and 2019. State assessment scores improved by 12% in ELA and 9% in math, with Latino students gaining the most ground.
At the same time, the city's achievement gap persists, graduation rates are declining and rates of absenteeism and suspension remain high.
DCPS, once hailed as a turnaround success story, was marred by scandal in 2018 just before Lewis Ferebee stepped in as chancellor. In a 2019 Q&A with Education Dive, Ferebee said he hoped to rebuild the community's trust, along with integrating more technology in the schools and investing in mental health services.
The city's school system is unique, as it has a combination of mayoral control, public school choice options and high per-pupil funding that is not tied to property taxes. Other districts have some of these features, but DCPS is the only one with all three.
“The district has a very high degree of public school choice,” Chelsea Coffin, director of the Education Policy Initiative at the D.C. Policy Center, told Education Dive. Students can attend their in-boundary school, a public charter school or an out-of-boundary traditional public school through a centralized lottery system.
Despite choices, the district remains largely segregated, Coffin said. Nearly half of the schools are 90% or more black, while other schools have a white majority. This is impacted by housing patterns and the tendency for students to go to school near their residence.
Charter schools don’t seem to have a significant impact on the enrollment of the traditional public schools, she said. Depending on the openings and closings of individual schools, charter schools are more popular during some years while traditional public schools have longer wait lists during others.