On Education

By Tamar Lechter

I am hopeful that as public school conditions improve and new, great charters continue to arrive, all children in DC will be able to receive an effective education without breaking the bank or sitting on a golden ticket

It’s 8:30 in the morning and I’m watching my husband strap our three-year-old daughter into the bike trailer. I’m inside the warm house, holding the baby, and glad that it’s him, not me, braving the cold to drop her off at school and continue the 8KM ride to work. The fact that our daughter is heading off to her school today, at all, means that we won the lottery. The DC School Lottery, that is.

Washington, D.C. is one of the few places in the United States offering free preschool for children from age three. For many parents, free school at age three as opposed to waiting until kindergarten, is a huge financial gain. What’s the catch? Not every child is guaranteed a spot in a pre-K3 program.

The city uses a lottery system for public city and public charter schools to level the playing field and provide each child an equal chance at an education. It gives preference, but does not guarantee attendance at neighborhood schools, and allows preference for siblings, if space permits. This means that everyone has the same chance of acceptance into a school (even across town), or being stuck on a long waitlist, or missing out altogether.

For those who don’t get a spot, options include daycare, nannies, and private school, all of which are expensive. DC has the highest percentage of working moms in the country, and those who don’t earn entrance into a free school, sometimes have to weigh the cost of working or staying home until the next lottery comes around or their kids reach Kindergarten. Our daughter got into one of our top three choices, a wonderful school that she will attend through middle school. When we applied, the school had 15 preschool spots available for non-siblings, and the waiting list was nearly 1,000.

Like I said, we were extremely lucky.

My husband grew up attending private school in Maryland. He had good public school options, but as an only child, his parents felt that since they could afford to send him to a top private school, it was the best option. Conversely, I grew up in California attending public schools all the way through.

When we got pregnant with our first child, we debated whether to send her to private or public school. Ultimately, public school prevailed. By their nature, many private schools lean toward one socioeconomic class, promoting a more homogenous learning culture. I felt my money was better spent on plane tickets to travel the world with my kids, introducing them to new experiences, people and places.

However, the public school system in DC is notorious for bad test scores. In 2008, 36% of students demonstrated math proficiency at grade level and 39% demonstrated reading proficiency. From 2007-2010 Chancellor Michele Rhee governed DC public schools. During her tenure, D.C. reading pass rates increased by 14 percent, and math pass rates increased by 17 percent. However, Rhee’s teacher firings and overall methodology was controversial and she left in 2010.

Overall, things are looking up. Middle-income families are choosing to stay in the district with their children, instead of fleeing to the suburbs and are joining the fight to improve public schools. The public charter system has tried to fill the gap between low performing public schools and exclusive private schools. But charters are fairly new, untested, and vary greatly from school to school, neighborhood to neighborhood.

By getting into a great pre-K3 program, my children are entering the system with a huge advantage, one that doesn’t force us to make tough financial choices. I am hopeful that as public school conditions improve and new, great charters continue to arrive, all children in DC will be able to receive an effective education without breaking the bank or sitting on a golden ticket.

ec5afac7f3e9d99cf92c1db7b6d3d9a8Tamar Lechter is a Leadership Coach and owner of Tamar Lechter Leadership Coaching. She lives with her husband and two daughters in Washington, D.C.

Illustration: Jen Howarth

Photo: Jessica Benton-Cooney

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