The share of District residents who think that the city’s public schools are performing well has more than doubled since the mid-1990s, but most continue to give low ratings to the schools, according to a new Washington Post poll.
That poor opinion of D.C. public education appears to be a weakness for Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), who is seeking reelection and draws far lower approval ratings for his school improvement efforts than in other key policy areas. Just 38 percent of city residents think that Gray has done an “excellent” or “good” job improving schools, compared with 55 percent who praise his efforts to reduce crime and 68 percent who say he has done well attracting new business to the District.
Gray has touted D.C. students’ math and reading scores — which grew faster than those of any other large city in the country on a 2013 national exam — as evidence that the District’s long-struggling public schools are on the right track. But many residents and parents see the city’s schools as falling short of their expectations and producing unacceptably low student achievement, especially in middle school and high school.
While enrollment in early childhood and elementary school programs has grown quickly in recent years, many middle schools and high schools have shrunk as families with older children continue to move to the suburbs and use private schools. About half of D.C. public school students are proficient in math and reading, and just six in 10 students graduate from high school on time.
“I look at the graduation rates. Yes, we’ve gone up, but it’s still atrocious,” said Margaret Albamonte, of Northwest Washington’s Shepherd Park neighborhood, who has a daughter at Wilson High School. “I’m not saying I have the solution. I just think it’s crazy how badly we’re broken. I don’t think there is a sense of emergency about the schools.”
In the Post poll, 38 percent of residents say the District’s public school performance is “excellent” or “good,” while 51 percent rate the schools as “not good” or “poor.” Positive ratings are up six percentage points since a 2011 Post-Kaiser Family Foundation survey, but are nearly the same as the 37 percent who rated the schools well four years ago, in the run-up to the 2010 mayoral primary in which Gray defeated incumbent Adrian M. Fenty (D).
The dissatisfaction might suggest an opening for Gray’s opponents in his party’s primary and D.C. Council member and potential mayoral candidate David A. Catania (I-At Large), who is chairman of the council’s Education Committee and has pledged to turn schools into a central issue should he run in the general election.
Views on D.C. public education continue to vary widely by demographics and income level, with some of the highest ratings among public school parents (47 percent positive), African Americans (49 percent) and people who have lived in the District for 40 years or longer (51 percent). Far less impressed with the schools were whites (24 percent positive) and people who have lived in the city for less than five years (27 percent).
The poll was conducted Jan. 9-12 among a random sample of 1,003 adult residents of the District reached on conventional and cellular phones. The overall error margin is four percentage points.