Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Recently I submitted my son’s application for the common lottery, and I felt frustration and helplessness by the lack of real quality public school choices.

D.C. is very special in that it offers an array of programming such as language immersion, expeditionary learning, and Montessori education. My husband and I did everything we were supposed to do: We visited many of the coveted DCPS and charter schools, created a spreadsheet with observational notes and academic data for each school, and ranked each school according to our set of preferences. However, as we prepared our lottery submission, we had a sickening realization that there are only a few available spots at 11 out of 12 schools on our list.

Indeed, our city has a high stakes lottery system in which there are “winners” and “losers.” The lottery process made me feel both helpless as a parent and compelled as the education ombudsman to speak to the limitations around attaining equitable educational opportunities that many families grapple with every day.

In recent weeks, as D.C. residents, we have observed the difficulty that even the former DCPS Chancellor Antwan Wilson had in finding a quality school option for his daughter. Indeed, his story illustrates a fallacy that many parents face: School choice and school quality are the same. While school choice is premised upon the laudable notion that families should be able to choose schools that meet the needs of their children, the reality is that real school choice is a luxury many of our families don’t have.

As a mother, I had little difficulty accessing a wealth of information about any public school in D.C. during the lottery process. However, the real inequity for me and for most of the families that I work with lies in the lack of quality options for all students across the city. Do you truly have choice if the majority of your school options are unsatisfactory?

Many individuals espouse the notion that every child has a right to a quality school, regardless of race, socioeconomic status, or zip code. Our current D.C. educational systems do not reflect this ideal; some families can forgo the lottery system because they live within the boundary of high-performing public schools, which are mostly concentrated in Wards 2, 3, and 6. Those families have real choices.

For the past decade, there has been an almost celebratory mood and unfounded optimism regarding the upward trajectory of our schools. This carefully-cultivated narrative has not often aligned with the experiences of the families who have come to the Office of the Ombudsman for Public Education for assistance. While school officials within the traditional school system expressed surprise over the recently uncovered inflated graduation rates at comprehensive high schools, our office regularly works on behalf of students who have demonstrated an inability to read or solve math problems on grade level. A number of these students were also on track to graduate. Thus, stark dissonance exists between the reality of our public school systems and the vision of what we hope they will become. It is critical that we reconcile this gap between our vision and our reality by being honest about the current state of our schools. We cannot continue to tout citywide gains in the same manner when so many students and families, particularly students of color and students with disabilities, have expressed concerns about the overall quality of education in both public school sectors.

The recent attendance and graduation scandal at Ballou, and the departures of the Deputy Mayor for Education and the DCPS Chancellor, afford an opportunity to pay renewed attention to current fault lines, such as social promotion and low proficiency on District-wide assessments, that have been part of the story of our public school systems for so long. We need to first think about how to present the true state of our D.C. public schools by bridging any disconnect between how parents perceive their child’s school and the sobering data illustrating low educational attainment across much of both public and charter sectors, especially for students of color, English learner students, and students with disabilities.  

We can only achieve true educational equity if we recognize that our collective failure to provide quality schools for all children is also our collective responsibility. As D.C. residents, we must be willing to change a broken system in which “wins” are based on where you live or a favorable lottery number, to a system where all children have a chance to “win” in every D.C. public school they attend.  

As a mom and as the Education Ombudsman, I am optimistic about the potential for a new narrative in which we engage in honest conversations about the current state of our school systems—with the resolve to get it right this time.

Do you have something to say about D.C.’s public schools or charter schools? Consider submitting a public letter. Email your letter to City Paper will publish select letters and verify the identity of their writers. We are most interested in hearing from people who spend their days inside school buildings, either as staff or students. We can offer anonymity upon request.