Featured Image

New D.C. education data show how school choice plays out across wards

October 25, 2019
  • Megan Gallagher
  • Chelsea Coffin

This post originally appeared on the Urban Institute’s Greater DC blog.


D.C.’s school choice policies allow families to send their children to schools outside their neighborhood boundaries, and more than three-quarters of D.C. students attend a school that isn’t their in-boundary or neighborhood school. Some of those students go to school in the same ward where they live, while others travel across the city. How can we tell whether students are attending schools in their own neighborhoods or wards? And what do we know about student travel to and from school?

To help stakeholders better understand D.C. school data, the Urban Institute partnered with the D.C. Policy Center to create a longitudinal dataset that puts several school-level datasets in one accessible place. The D.C. Master School File, which includes publicly available data on D.C. public schools and public charter schools from 2014 to 2018, features data on school information, enrollment, student characteristics, outcomes, school environment, and geography. (Also see the companion file and description document [PDF].)

The D.C. Master School File shows that citywide, about 53 percent of students attended school and lived in the same ward in the 2017–18 school year (and that number hadn’t changed much from previous years). But the share of students who attend school within their ward varies by ward. That percentage is significantly higher for students living east of the Anacostia River, as 68 percent of students in Ward 7 and 79 percent of students in Ward 8 attend school in the same ward where they live.


figure 1


Even though students in Ward 8 are those most likely to live and attend school in the same ward, they are also among the least likely to attend their in-boundary public school, as only 20 percent of Ward 8 students go to the school in their neighborhood boundary. This pattern suggests that students are exercising choice but may prefer Ward 8 schools or face constraints to attending schools outside Ward 8.

Using data in the D.C. Master School File, we can also see where students are traveling to go to school. In the 2017–18 school year, more than 37,000 students (or 41 percent) crossed ward boundaries. For example, 488 students traveled from Ward 8 to Ward 4 for school, and 34 students traveled from Ward 4 to Ward 8. This shows how school choice is playing out differently among families in D.C.’s wards.

Urban Institute research on D.C. students shows that longer travel times from a student’s home to their school is associated with higher rates of school mobility and absenteeism. And transportation can be a major challenge for families looking to send their children to schools in different parts of the city, as D.C. doesn’t provide traditional school buses for most students.

In D.C., the School Safety and Safe Passage Working Group is aiming to improve the travel conditions for students. The Office of the Student Advocate also developed a Safe Passage Community Resource Toolkit to share information about safety and transportation resources with students, families, and educators.

These student attendance and travel trends are just a few of the insights users could find in the new data resource, which includes information on school-level graduation rates, program types, waiting lists, and English learners. See the full dataset in the D.C. Master School File, and review the companion file and description document, to learn more.

Megan Gallagher is a senior research associate in the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center and the Center on Education Data and Policy at the Urban Institute.

Chelsea Coffin is the Executive Director of the D.C. Policy Center’s Education Policy Initiative.


Megan Gallagher

Senior Research Associate
Urban Institute

Chelsea Coffin

Director of the Education Policy Initiative
D.C. Policy Center

Chelsea Coffin joined the D.C. Policy Center in September 2017 as the Director of the Education Policy Initiative. Her research focuses on how schools connect to broader dynamics in the District of Columbia. She has authored reports on diversity in D.C.’s schools, the D.C. schools with the best improvement for at-risk students, and the transition after high school in D.C. Chelsea has also conducted planning analysis at the D.C. Public Charter School Board, carried out research at the World Bank, and taught secondary school with the Peace Corps in Mozambique.

Chelsea holds a Bachelor of Arts from Middlebury College and a Master of Arts from Johns Hopkins University (SAIS) in International Economics and Development.

You can reach Chelsea at chelsea@dcpolicycenter.org.