What Happened to the Public Schools of Washington, D.C.?

This project explores the history of the public schools of Washington, D.C. Historically, public schools in America were by law and custom largely under state and local control. When the District of Columbia was established, however, the Constitution granted Congress exclusive control over it. Thus the federal government claimed an outsized role in shaping educational policy in its own backyard. In different eras, Senators and members of the House of Representatives tried to make public schools in the federal district a model for the nation. As the talkative Senator Hubert H. Humphrey quipped in 1963, “if the capital can’t set an example in education, how can we expect some Toonerville out there to do it?”

Washington’s schools existed in the shadow of the most powerful government and richest nation the world has ever known. Why hasn’t a long-standing federal presence made the system a showcase for the nation? Reese and graduate assistants are studying the evolution and impact of racial policies, pedagogy, and curriculum upon academic achievement and the social history of the local schools from the nineteenth century through the recent past.


Completed on June 30, 2019