Wrestling with Educational Inequality in the Nation’s Capital

I grew up with parents who are strong proponents of the public education system, and I was inclined to agree with them, as most children do. However, I have realized over the last few years how much this view of public education is a luxury made possible by my family’s economic status. My parents had the economic power to buy a house zoned for the high school with the best academics and opportunities. I had skilled teachers with high-level degrees and years of experience. I never wanted for resources and never worried for my safety.

I want to believe that public schools are the great equalizer of opportunity, introducing fairness and justice in the midst of our broken systems. However, like other institutions, public schools are in many ways broken. This has been brought into sharp focus for me since moving to the Washington, D.C. area. Washington, D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) have been famously in crisis for decades. Recent statistics show that although graduation rates and standardized test scores are trending upward, most students in DCPS are not meeting basic benchmarks in math and reading, and families all over the city are looking for alternatives to public schools.

I began volunteering with a small Christian private school in Southeast D.C., the quadrant of the city containing the poorest neighborhoods in the District. Substance abuse and related crime are widespread and many basic services are sub par compared to the rest of the city. I am continually shocked by the proximity of this neighborhood to the seat of our nation’s federal government - I can see the dome of the Capitol Building from the classroom windows of the school. While DCPS is in crisis everywhere, wealthy families clustered in other sections of the city can afford to send their children to one of the many high profile college preparatory schools in the District. However, some families, like those I have met during my time volunteering, simply cannot afford to send their children to private schools or move to the higher performing school districts in the Virginia and Maryland suburbs. While public charters are often held up as the solution to this problem, they are not always located in the neighborhoods where they are most needed and are not regulated in the same way as public schools.

I am continually shocked by the proximity of this neighborhood to the seat of our nation’s federal government - I can see the dome of the Capitol Building from the classroom windows of the school.

One way that the federal government has attempted to address this problem of limited choice for families in low performing school districts is through the creation of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) in 2004. The Opportunity Scholarship is awarded to students below a certain income level in Washington, D.C. and allows them to attend participating private schools of their choice. Serving Our Children, the nonprofit that offers the OSP, is federally funded through the Scholarship for Opportunity and Results (SOAR) Act. While this program is undeniably beneficial for students and schools alike, it is not so simple. Even with a generous budget, demand is so high that the OSP has found it necessary to use a lottery system to determine which students receive the limited scholarship money almost every year since its creation. Even this arguably well-executed school choice initiative is not the full answer to the needs of families living in Washington, D.C. This is not merely an issue of funding education. In the case of Washington, D.C., government at both the city and federal levels have invested in potential solutions to the education crisis for years, as evidenced by the existence of the OSP, with only marginal success.

Educational inequality is strongly correlated with the ways in which economic and racial inequality have historically limited choice, disproportionately harming people of color. For example, less than one percent of OSP scholarship recipients for the 2016-2017 school year were white. The vast majority (81.3 percent) were black students, with the second most represented group being Hispanic and/or Latino (15.9 percent). The need for OSP splits not only along racial lines, but geographic lines as well. Washington, D.C. is split into eight wards; the wards southeast of the Anacostia River make up 40 percent of OSP recipients, while less than one percent of recipients are from ward three, located in the affluent Northwest quadrant of the city. Educational inequality is essential to understand as it relates to many other issues of injustice, particularly in urban areas. The stratified need for the OSP scholarship reveals the troubling evidence of racial segregation in D.C., and the subsequent inequality of opportunity. Unequal opportunities will continue to perpetuate this injustice unless something changes; these communities deserve the same opportunities as their counterparts in more affluent neighborhoods.

The stratified need for the OSP scholarship reveals the troubling evidence of racial segregation in D.C., and the subsequent inequality of opportunity.

There are many churches in the neighborhoods of Southeast D.C. and beyond that are seeking to provide more options for affordable, quality education in their communities. Through creating and offering support to private Christian schools committed to making education affordable, churches are helping to close the gap in access to quality education. However, flooding communities with private schools cannot be the silver bullet. Churches can support families in other ways, such as by offering financial support or affordable after school programs.

What is our responsibility as Christian citizens? As a single twenty-something without children, these kinds of educational decisions can feel distant to me at times. However, volunteering at a school has opened my eyes to the importance of being aware of and advocating for just educational policy. While the school choice debate can be contentious, it is important to explore the arguments for and against the variety of proposed systems to best serve students in our communities.

Despite the fact that I do not have children of my own and may never face the tough educational decisions that many families in urban centers face, I know that I am called to participate in my political community. I believe that this call includes understanding the connection between educational inequality and inequality of opportunity, and to do everything in my power to seek justice for my neighbors.

-Emery Lambert works as the Development Assistant at Cornerstone Schools of Washington, DC, a private Christian school in Southeast Washington, DC