D.C. may give neighborhood families preference in charter school admissions


Two River Public Charter School students take part in physical education class April 11 in Washington in the common area known as "The Greens.” The city is considering letting charter schools give priority to neighborhood children. (Mark Gail/THE WASHINGTON POST)
May 11, 2012

District officials are seriously considering changes in the law that would make at least some public charter schools, currently open to all students citywide, more accessible to families in surrounding neighborhoods.

The idea of a neighborhood admissions preference, under quiet discussion for months, drew mixed reaction from charter school leaders, some concerned that it would diminish their autonomy. The concept is expected to be taken up by a task force of education officials who will make recommendations in the fall. It is one of several potentially game-changing initiatives underway that could significantly alter where and how the District’s 77,000 public school students attend class.

The city’s rapidly growing sector of charter schools, taxpayer funded but independently operated, serve 31,000 students. That is 41 percent of the public school population, the highest concentration outside New Orleans.

Unlike in most traditional public schools, which draw students from within attendance boundaries, charter enrollment is almost exclusively on a first-come, first-served basis. If demand exceeds available space, admission is decided by lottery. Only siblings of current students or children of founding board members are supposed to receive an advantage.

But some city leaders say the robust growth of charter schools, and their modest but discernible record of outperforming­­ traditional public schools in some academic categories, make it increasingly difficult to to justify excluding families who live nearby.

“I think everyone knows that the current system as a model is not going to work as we continue to move forward,” said D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D), an outspoken proponent of neighborhood preference.

He has inserted a provision for the task force in the 2013 budget legislation, which will go to the council Tuesday. The task force would include school and city government representatives.

Brown said he is pushing the idea because he has heard from numerous parents initially excited about the arrival of charter schools in their neighborhoods, only to lose out in a lottery.

“I don’t know why you have to do a lottery when the school is across the street from your house,” Brown said.

The issue of neighborhood access to charters could become more politically sensitive as the city ponders how to reconfigure its traditional school system. The city system is operating around 75 percent capacity, with a significant number of under-enrolled schools that have become too expensive to operate.

Deputy Mayor for Education De’Shawn Wright is developing a master facilities plan that is likely to call for closure of some schools at the end of the 2012-13 academic year. A study Wright commissioned from the Chicago-based consultant IFF has recommended closing or consolidating low-performing schools and, in some cases, replacing them with charters. Officials will also be reassessing attendance boundaries and feeder patterns.

At the same time, Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson, who heads the 45,000-student D.C. public school system, has asked the D.C. Council for her own authority to open charters, possibly with an eye toward having some operate with neighborhood admissions preferences. Those charter schools willing to set aside seats for neighborhood families might find it easier to gain access to surplus D.C. school buildings, said council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6).

A few cities already use neighborhood attendance zones for some charter schools. In New Orleans, where the Louisiana Recovery School District converted most schools to public charters after Hurricane Katrina, 50 percent of elementary school seats will be set aside for students living nearby this fall. Chicago and Denver also have some form of local preference for charters.

Some D.C. charter leaders are leery, regarding the idea as a slippery slope that could lead to diminished autonomy and fewer choices for families outside charter attendance zones. They also said it could damage a school if neighborhood families don’t buy into the school’s culture or educational approach.

Donald Hense, chairman of Friendship Public Charter Schools, which operates nine campuses serving more than 6,000 students in the District and Baltimore, said Brown and other city leaders are attempting to cater to white parents in gentrifying neighborhoods who want easier access to high-performing charters, such as E.L. Haynes Public Charter School in Petworth.

“The charters in these neighborhoods are better than the [D.C. public schools] available,” Hense said. But because of open enrollment policies, “these people who are gaining in number have started to complain that there’s this nice school that is right in their neighborhood but they can’t get in.”

Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), through Wright, has signaled support for admissions preferences, as have Brown and Wells. The concept also has the backing of some charter schools, including the KIPP DC network, which operates nine campuses (a 10th will open in the fall), serving 2,600 students.

“We see tremendous value in being able to provide a neighborhood option. It just makes sense,” KIPP DC chief executive Susan Schaeffler said.

Bill Turque, who covers Montgomery County government and politics, has spent more than thirty years as a reporter and editor for The Washington Post, Newsweek, the Dallas Times Herald and The Kansas City Star.
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