The Evolution of Charter-School Choice
in the District of Columbia
THE THEMES WE EXPLORE IN THIS BOOK are fundamental to the study of charter schools and school choice in general. However, empirical research is conducted in specific locales and often based on samples drawn from a defined population. The challenge is to identify trends and patterns based on the empirical data drawn from a particular milieu and balance conclusions based on such observations with the inevitable desire to make broader statements. We recognize this temptation and we try hard not to “overgeneralize” from our data.
Thus, as the reader will discover, our empirical evidence is drawn from Washington, D.C., but our reading of the literature on school choice suggests that there is very little that we document in this book that is unique or limited to D.C. We believe our analysis is a reasonable and reasoned reading of the data and we firmly believe that the lessons we draw have bearing on the ongoing debate over school choice and charter schools; nonetheless, caveat emptor is always sound advice.
We believe that political and social attitudes and behaviors develop in response to the institutional arrangements that define the opportunities, constraints, and the benefits and costs of such actions. In this chapter we begin the substantive work of the book, describing the context in which the parents, the students, and the schools we study operate. In the following pages, we present a brief history of the evolution of school choice in Washington, D.C. and present some of that school system's defining characteristics that we believe have affected the way in which charter schools have developed and the choices parents have.
The District of Columbia has a long record of school reform. Much of this has been in response to a long and troubled history of poor academic performance of schools in the district coupled with more than a few management scandals. School reform in Washington also develops in response to the ever-present role of the Congress, which supervises many aspects of local government and which periodically exercises its power over the