A Public School System Divided Against Itself Cannot Stand

Mayor Bowser’s call for a citywide vote in November to make Washington, DC the nation’s 51st state was planned to coincide with the 154th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.  That reminded me of one of Lincoln’s best-known speeches, his “House Divided Speech” where he said “a house divided against itself cannot stand,” and the parallels with the management of our city’s public schools.  Someone observing the DC public education landscape today might similarly remark “a public school system divided against itself cannot stand.”

Not everyone agreed with Lincoln when he said “a house divided against itself cannot stand,” and I’m certain not everyone in DC would agree “a public school system divided against itself cannot stand.” However, in spite of our differences, I do believe most people share the following views:

  1. Every student and family in Washington, DC should have access to quality education whether they live in the richest or poorest parts of the city;
  2. Our tax dollars going towards public education should be well spent, and there should not be excessive duplication of services;
  3. There should be thoughtful decisions made before existing schools are closed and new schools are opened;
  4. We should not be opening more school “seats” than we have students to fill them;
  5. Children’s time is better spent getting some extra sleep or participating in an afterschool activity than travelling across the city to go to a school far from their home;
  6. The lottery process creates great angst for parents who decide not to send their child to their neighborhood schools, both in terms of deciding where they want to send their child, and in terms of being at the mercy of the lottery to get their child into the school they want;
  7. Congress should not be imposing laws on the District of Columbia on purely local matters such as our public education system.

The DC Public Charter School Board (PCSB) was created by Congress to serve as an independent chartering authority, and since 1996 has had the authority to open up not more than ten new charter schools a year. Today there are over 110 public charter schools in DC and 44% of the students in the public school system attend public charter schools.  There are many downsides to this dual public education system including:

  1. Twenty years after the passage of the School Reform Act of 1995, we still find an achievement gap that falls along race and economic lines;
  2. The creation of excessive seats has resulted in underutilized buildings;
  3. Large amounts of money are spent on facilities serving both the DC public schools and the charter schools, yet many schools still need renovations, and students are attending school in buildings never intended to be schools;
  4. Significant sums of money are spent on marketing and advertising individual schools along with managing two separate school systems, and these dollars could actually be better spent on educating students;
  5. The availability of so many school choices creates a culture where parents are searching for the “best” school for their child, and they have little incentive to support their neighborhood schools; and
  6. Last, but certainly not least, no coherent planning occurs between DCPS and the PCSB on the types of educational opportunities offered across the city or the number of seats needed for the future expected student population.

While there are no easy solutions to an educational landscape that has been created haphazardly over the past twenty years, one critical step in the right direction is to ensure there is comprehensive planning between DCPS and the PCSB on the opening of new schools. Comprehensive planning can help ensure scarce financial resources are more efficiently and effectively spent and minimize duplication of services. Moving toward greater coordination of all publicly funded schools gives us a start at a more rational planning approach regarding the programmatic offerings at our schools and where these schools are best located. As long as the PCSB continues to be an independent chartering authority, there is nothing to compel them to engage in comprehensive planning.

While Mayor Bowser has called for a citywide vote on statehood in November, we know this will be an uphill battle in the Republican-controlled Congress. In a related demonstration of the demand for more local control, the District is planning to enact the coming year’s spending plan without congressional approval.  Now seems like the opportune time for the Mayor and the Council to seek changes to the School Reform Act that will give the District the ability to make comprehensive decisions over all the public schools in our city.


5 thoughts on “A Public School System Divided Against Itself Cannot Stand

  1. Thanks for this.

    For what it’s worth, I’ve written about this problem for many years, including on this list more than 10 years ago.



    And the problem with what we might call a lack of adequate or comprehensive capital planning for the public schools is but one element of under-developed public processes for capital improvements planning and budgeting more generally.


    In most other jurisdictions, the public approval process for capital budgeting is a separate process from the annual appropriations process for what other jurisdictions call an operating budget. In short, in DC they are combined.

    Plus, in the other jurisdictions, capital planning is done on a six year running basis, with two year plans, and ongoing monitoring. Usually the capital plan is approved by a “planning commission” or “planning board” before it is referred to the legislative branch. The process of the capital budget planning process is an Executive Branch function.

    It’s not that the Mayor’s office or the CFO’s office don’t have capital planning units (and DDOT, but that is because the use of federal transportation monies triggers very detailed and thorough capital planning requirements), it’s that the oversight and approval process is particularly weak.

    I also argue that matters concerning tax abatements, eminent domain, alley closing, and property disposition should be considered capital matters and reviewed in the same process as capital budgeting review and approval, with final approval of recommendations made by Council.

    Note that the US Federal Government has the same problem in the way in handles capital planning, which is why GSA attempts to do property trades and other machinations, when they don’t believe that Congress will handle a matter directly and what I would call properly. This has been an issue with the FBI building.



  2. Where were you when DCPS Henderson announced a male Children of Color only (segregated) High School last year that would be “privately funded only”. Crickets, nothing, to scary to talk about? No one had the courage to speak out against public segregation Jim Crowe returning.

    Now the budget calls for $40 million in PUBLIC funds for this new school. Again crickets nothing….No comments on this website

    Put professional services in ALL the middle schools and require parent involvement and training to keep at risk children engaged in education. s this so hard to understand? This will lower the drop out rates and engage families in a healthier life.

    Stop beating up the Charter Schools and stop trying to force families into less healthy choices. You lost that war years ago. Start getting all the families (more than just 4 or 5) involved in bettering the Middle Schools and you will see success.


  3. Reginald, thanks for taking the time to read my blog and to comment on it. I think we agree on a lot more than you might think. Next year DC will have two new high schools, the Empowering Males of Color school that DCPS is opening, and the Washington Leadership Academy that the Public Charter School Board approved. I wonder why both of these schools are opening when we have invested hundreds of millions of dollars modernizing our city’s high schools, and we have high schools that aren’t fully enrolled. Rather than opening these new schools, I’d much rather see the dollars invested in staffing our existing schools, and providing the services at risk children need. It takes many hands to make our schools work and staffing is critical.

    I agree with you that parent involvement is extremely important, and frankly wish there was much more parent involvement across the city. You’re absolutely right we need parent involvement for our schools to be successful. I would love to learn more from you about how we can get more parents involved.


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