School choice, but few real options

Naomi Rubin DeVeaux and Mark Schneider
Sunday, January 2, 2011; C05

Every summer, an increasingly common event occurs across the nation - parents open a letter telling them that their child's school failed to meet benchmarks set by the federal No Child Left Behind law. As a result, the letter explains, they have the right to send their child to another public school if space is available.

The District is no stranger to this event. Some 39 percent of D.C. public school children attend independently run but publicly financed charter schools. About 30 percent more reject their neighborhood school to participate in the out-of-boundary program operated by D.C. public schools. So when parents with children in about 100 D.C. schools received this letter last year, you would think that they had plenty of good alternatives to their failing schools.

But a study that we conducted as part of our work at the American Institutes for Research and Friends of Choice in Urban Schools found that few D.C. parents receiving these letters can hope to find a place for their child at a higher-performing school.

The research showed that D.C. parents transferred a total of 11,631 students from one public school - traditional or charter - to another last year. Of these, only 29 percent ended up in a "higher proficiency" school. To meet this definition, schools had to exceed the District average for student proficiency and the state District average for proficiency and growth in proficiency combined. About 33 percent enrolled in a school with below-average proficiency, and 38 percent enrolled in a school of unproven quality - schools that have insufficient data to judge them.

The parents and guardians of these 11,631 students had more than 90 charter schools and 100 D.C. public schools to choose from, yet few true options are available. This lack of options may surprise those who consider the District a showcase for school choice. After all, the city's 14-year-old charter school law is considered to be one of the strongest in the nation. And DCPS has had three years of mayoral control and former chancellor Michelle Rhee's reforms.

It's true that, in theory, the District offers parents who cannot afford private tuition or housing in neighborhoods with better public schools the opportunity to send a child to a higher-performing school, but in practice most transfer students will not get into one. Because parents whose children are already enrolled in high-performing schools overwhelmingly - and understandably - re-enroll their children each year, few places become available for transferring students. Since enrolled students are guaranteed a place for each successive grade level, the greatest number of seats available in higher-proficiency schools are at preschool, sixth grade and ninth grade - the entry points for elementary, middle and high school.

A close examination of the numbers starkly reveals parents' lack of choice because of the popularity of higher-proficiency schools. The District's four higher-proficiency charter high schools (Friendship Collegiate Academy, Thurgood Marshall Academy, SEED School of Washington D.C. and Cesar Chavez Capitol Hill Campus) provided 564 of the places made available to transferring students last year. But of these, 404 were in ninth grade, while just 75 places were available for those trying to get in after 10th grade - 45 spots in 11th grade and 30 in 12th. Worse, there were no openings in any grade for new out-of-boundary students in higher-proficiency DCPS high schools.

Two trends make this scarcity more severe. Increasingly, higher-proficiency public charter schools are adding elementary, middle and high schools to their offerings. This is a good thing, but it also reduces the chances of students who want to transfer into these schools. At the same time, the shortage of openings in high-quality schools encourages D.C. parents to begin the hunt for quality schools earlier and earlier, favoring those with the most information and the most resources. This last trend reduces the options available to disadvantaged parents in many neighborhoods and makes parents everywhere work harder to find a quality place.

The District's public charter school reform has done much to add higher-proficiency schools to the choices available, especially in disadvantaged neighborhoods, and DCPS reform has introduced new teachers, principals and management to failing schools. D.C. charters provided more than three times as many quality spaces as the DCPS out-of-boundary program did last year, offering more than 2,600 transferring students spots at higher-proficiency schools. But both kinds of schools could do more to provide quality seats.

To create real school choice, DCPS should bring in more educators from outside the school system to raise failing city-run schools to a higher level. DCPS also should continue Rhee's drive to close underperforming schools.

In addition, the city's Public Charter School Board, which regulates charters independently of DCPS, should invite successful charter operators from outside the District to run schools, as well as allow more D.C. charters to open and close more that fail.

Unless our city radically expands its supply of seats at high-quality public schools, D.C. will continue to offer lots of school choice but few real options.

Naomi Rubin DeVeaux is director of school quality at Friends of Choice in Urban Schools. Mark Schneider is a vice president at American Institutes for Research and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, which published this study.

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