Last week, I was talking to a couple planning to leave a D.C. charter school. They liked the school well enough. But the commute — from home, to school, to work — had reached two hours a day.
As the couple waited to close on a house in Virginia, they knew they would miss the District. But they looked forward to walking to their neighborhood school.
I thought about this family while digging into the new $100,000 study of D.C. schools sponsored by the charitable arm of Wal-Mart. The study’s big takeaway: There are not enough “top-performing” schools in working-class D.C. neighborhoods. This is not exactly news. But their solution — close some neighborhood and charter schools and replace them with more charter schools — makes no sense given the rest of the study’s findings.
Given that there is already a network of neighborhood schools that is publicly owned, I can’t think of a more circuitous route to getting to better schools in every neighborhood.
The study’s most relevant finding is that, much like the couple I spoke to, two-thirds of D.C. families still choose a school within their neighborhood or adjacent cluster, despite nearly two decades of “choice.” (Some 74 percent of DCPS students and 57 percent of charters chose schools close to home.) The study shows that the traditional neighborhood system is both more racially and socioeconomically diverse and has a higher “current achievement,” judged by standardized tests. Charters, on the other hand, show “higher slopes of improvement” on the standardized tests, the report notes.
In general, I think it’s bad policy to open or close schools based on test scores. But even if you believe test scores are most important, the study’s rationale for turning neighborhood schools which perform better now over to charter management, which the study projects will perform better in the future, defies logic. That’s like saying a bank should cancel the loan to the borrower with a higher current salary, and instead give it to someone who makes less, but whose salary has grown more in the past five years.
I’m no MBA, as are many of those running education policy these days (and indeed this study). But given that traditionally managed neighborhood schools have performed better over time, I would think they would be the better investment. The network of buildings is already there. Why not just spend some money to spruce them up and give them the resources to raise the level of instruction? That is the most direct path from point A to point B.
Investing in neighborhood schools makes better sense for families, too. I live in one of the neighborhoods targeted by the report. I have spent nearly all of my children’s lives driving to wealthier neighborhoods for school, soccer, dance, “play dates”and other activities. I will never forget the summer we signed our son up for summer camp, and we commuted to the wealthy suburb of Bethesda, just over the D.C. line. We spent two hours on the road each way. Exhausted and stressed, fights broke out in the house as we snapped under the pressure. It was no way to live.
I will never get back the years of my life I’ve wasted in a car. Now, I agree with the mom moving to Virginia. It’s just not worth it. So last year, when my own family embarked on our last round of D.C. “school choice,” proximity to home was not the only criteria, but it was the only one that was non-negotiable as far as I was concerned.
It’s about quality of life. Having a school close to the house means the difference between having time for homework and being able to get to sports, dance, or other extracurricular activities. It can be the difference between making it to the school to volunteer, or for the parent-teacher conference, or PTA meeting.
It determines if you are constantly screaming at kids to “hurry up!” because there is never enough time to do homework, or crash on school projects, or even get to bed at a decent hour. That time in the car, bus or Metro could be spent sitting at the family dinner table. It means when the kids ask for a “playdate,” you don’t get in the car, but you send them outside.
And what if you are a single parent working two, three jobs, commuting to work via three buses? How are you supposed to get to school and work outside the neighborhood and get all of that done? Impossible.
This is not rocket science. Every parent in D.C. has done the math. Outside the wealthiest D.C. neighborhoods — in which we can’t all fit — to compare charters and neighborhood school test scores is to compare shades of mediocre. Parents want schools in the neighborhood. We want the facilities to be upgraded, small class sizes, and cutting-edge instruction.
The good news is that a network of schools already exists in every neighborhood in D.C. The Wal-Mart study offers no proof that emptying those buildings, outsourcing the management and creating a lottery for admission delivers any more than projections and promises for the future.
There are no instant miracle cures. But parents are willing to invest our time in neighborhood schools because you get so much more than an item on a spreadsheet. You have the opportunity for communities to grow and unite around a shared purpose.
As I have written before, being able to invest in the neighborhood school is the choice that I most wish my family could have had. But it has been stripped away from us by policies that encourage unfettered growth in the charter system at the expense of investing in neighborhood schools of the future.
In our house, we have found that our lives run much more smoothly when we make choices with transportation, logistics and common sense in mind. The folks running the city need to do the same.
Natalie Hopkinson is the author of “Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City” forthcoming this fall on Duke University Press. Follow her on Twitter.
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