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  • Zoe Becker

An Alabama Representative Called D.C. Schools “Inmate Factories.”

He Should Look at Schools in His Home State.

Rep. Gary Palmer (R-Ala.)’s 2018 official portrait / Credits:

Rep. Gary Palmer of Alabama’s 6th congressional district, in a Mar. 29 congressional hearing on “Overdue Oversight of the Capital City,” called D.C. schools “inmate factories.” The House Oversight and Accountability Committee, which Mr. Palmer serves on, has authority over all matters within the jurisdiction of the House of Representatives, including decisions pertaining to D.C. public schools like Walls.

Addressing D.C. Council chairman Phil Mendelson, Mr. Palmer said bluntly, “You’ve got crappy schools.” Such a comment was received as a punch to the gut by some in D.C. Mendelson called the comment “racist and offensive.” DCPS Chancellor Lewis Ferebee responded in a statement to FOX 5 D.C., “We have some of the most brilliant minds, committed educators, [and] dedicated staff,” he said.

Not only were Mr. Palmer’s words insulting, but they also only tell part of the story. A comparison between the condition of the education systems in D.C. and Alabama shows that Mr. Palmer would be better off advocating for change in his own state.

Mr. Palmer, a Republican, could not be reached for comment on this story. Here’s what Mr. Palmer gets right: As he suggested when he called D.C. schools “dropout factories,” D.C. dropout rates are extraordinarily high. D.C.’s 75 percent graduation rate remains far lower than Alabama’s 88 percent.

This is as far as the truth in Mr. Palmer’s comment goes, though.

As the Washington Post reported in December 2022, despite being low, D.C.’s graduation rates are on an upward trajectory. D.C. graduation rates were as low as 60 percent in 2010. By 2020 they were hovering around 70 percent and rose to 73 percent in 2022.

Data from the Alabama State Department of Education revealed that the state’s graduation rates are declining. Last year, the Alabama graduation rate slipped below 90 percent for the first time since 2017.

Furthermore, D.C. is hardly an “inmate factory” when put side by side with Mr. Palmer’s home state. The Prison Policy Initiative reports that D.C. has an incarceration rate of 899 people per 100,000 residents. Alabama, on the other hand, has an incarceration rate of 938 people per 100,000 residents.

Mr. Palmer also fails to acknowledge extenuating circumstances behind graduation rates in D.C.

First, according to the 2020 Census, D.C. has a median income of $52,000 per year. By comparison, Alabama’s 6th district has a median income of around $70,000 per year.

The cost of living in Birmingham is 8 percent below the national average overall. D.C., however, has a cost of living around 50 percentage points above the national average.

This situation exacerbates D.C. dropout rates because many students leave school to support their families. The National Education Association finds that at least 30 percent of students who drop out of high school do so because of economic and financial pressures.

If Mr. Palmer cared about making D.C. schools less “crappy,” then surely he would support the creation of an economic safety net that helps students to stay in school.

His voting record, however, paints a different picture.

Mr. Palmer voted against the Federal Reserve Racial and Economic Equity Act of 2022, which expanded minority access to financial resources. DCPS’s minority enrollment sits at around 80 percent, and the act intended to eliminate disparities in “employment, income, wealth, and access to affordable credit” — factors that influence graduation rates.

Mr. Palmer also voted against the Community Services Block Grant Modernization Act of 2022, which expanded eligibility for various social services and activities up to 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL). The Census Bureau reports that nearly 30 percent of D.C. residents fall within 200 percent of the FPL. For a household of one, this means an income of less than 30,000 per year or, for a family of four, an income of less than 60,000 per year. This act would increase anti-poverty efforts in D.C.

With these votes, Mr. Palmer has used his position in Congress to make life harder, not easier, for D.C. residents. As long as poverty remains stagnant and congressmen like Mr. Palmer refuse to act, students will continue to drop out of D.C. schools.

The sharp hypocrisy in Mr. Palmer’s words highlights that negative views of D.C. public schools and students are based more on stereotypes than solid evidence. Policymakers should be taking a more thoughtful approach to addressing issues in the D.C. education system.

And while Congress may not currently be moving in the right direction, Walls students may one day prove people like Mr. Palmer wrong. Walls leads the rising tide in DCPS — with citywide graduation rates being up seven points in four years — and boasts over a 99 percent graduation rate with many students going on to enter top colleges and degree programs. So much for being an inmate factory


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